* Prospects for bill uncertain
* Shutdown looms on Sunday
* Reid blasts Republicans as “hypocrites” (New throughout)
By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Democrats in Congress prepared on Thursday for a high-stakes game of chicken over spending as they moved toward a weekend vote that, if it fails, could lead to a shutdown of wide swaths of the U.S. government.
With current funding due to expire at midnight on Saturday, Democrats set aside tentative plans to keep the government running if they do not pass a permanent spending bill by then.
Instead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would move forward with a controversial $1.1 trillion measure even as the party’s top vote-counter, Senator Dick Durbin, said it did not yet have the support needed to pass.
The bill would need to clear various hurdles in Congress before President Barack Obama could sign it into law and ensure the continued operation of a range of government services.
A shutdown would not affect “essential services” like national defense and public safety. But workers in other areas, such as education and national parks, would be ordered to stay home without pay.
Republicans in the Senate have blasted the bill as a wasteful boondoggle that ignores voters’ concerns over government spending and have vowed to defeat it. Republican Senator Jim DeMint has threatened to have the entire 1,924-page bill read out loud — a process that could take days.
Reid’s gambit effectively calls Republicans’ bluff and raises the specter of a government shutdown. The last time that happened, in 1995 and 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton enjoyed a spike in public approval and Republicans saw their reputations suffer.
At a news conference, a feisty Reid blasted Republicans for opposing a measure that includes thousands of pet spending projects, known as earmarks, that they requested.
“If you went to ‘H’ in the dictionary and found ‘hypocrite,’ under that would be people who ask for earmarks but vote against them,” said Reid.
Asked if his comments were mean-spirited, Reid said, “Could be.”
The looming battle over spending comes less than a day after lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a tax-cut package that would add $858 billion to budget deficits in a rare display of bipartisan cooperation.
The fiscal year began on Oct. 1, but the government has been operating on an extension of last year’s budget because Congress has been unable to pass any of the 12 bills that fund everything from prisons to scientific research.
Republicans want to extend that temporary funding until February, when they will control the House of Representatives and wield greater clout in the Senate. That would give them a greater chance to enact the deep spending cuts they promised voters in the November congressional elections.
“Once the new Congress is sworn in, we’ll have a chance to pass a less expensive bill free of wasteful spending,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “Until then, we should take a step back and respect the clear will of the voters.”
Polls show that Republicans won big in November due partly to public unease over the aggressive spending measures Democrats have taken to fight the sharpest economic downturn since the 1930s.
The Democratic bill would enable Obama to begin enacting his sweeping reforms of healthcare and financial regulations, but gives him $29 billion less than he requested. The measure would freeze the salaries of non-defense federal employees through 2013.
The House passed a substantially different budget bill last week, and the two would have to be reconciled before Obama could sign a final measure into law.
House Democrats said earlier in the day they might move to extend the temporary funding for a few more days to ensure the government does not shut down if they do not complete their work by the Saturday night deadline.
Later in the day, a Democratic aide said the House would instead wait and see how the debate played out in the Senate. (Additional reporting by Donna Smith; Editing by Peter Cooney)