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HELENA — White House and congressional negotiators are very close to reaching a deal to avoid a federal government shutdown, and should be able to “split the difference” on initial budget cuts and keep the government operating, Sen. Max Baucus told reporters Thursday.

“As I understand it, they’re very, very close on the numbers,” said Montana’s senior U.S. senator, a Democrat. “As I see it, there’s no reason we can’t find (a number) we can agree on.”

Baucus also said the two sides should tone down the partisanship, and that other policy issues that are part of the talks could be voted on separately, rather than hang up any deal.

Defunding health care reform, for instance, is “going a little far, for a short-term funding bill,” he said. “Let’s just figure out which of these can properly be dealt with here. Can we deal with these in some other way? Bring them up and vote on them, so, in the meantime, there isn’t a shutdown, so that people get some paychecks.”

President Barack Obama and congressional leaders were slated to work into the evening Thursday, trying to agree on a measure that could avoid a government shutdown by the weekend.

The other members of Montana’s congressional delegation — U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican, and Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, who likely will face off in the 2012 election for Tester’s seat — also said Thursday that a government shutdown can and should be avoided.

Tester, in a speech on the U.S. Senate floor, said shutting down the government would harm the U.S. economy, and that Congress can start tackling the federal budget deficit by “responsible decision-making, compromise and shared sacrifice.”

The strategy should make entitlement programs stronger, include proposals to cut defense spending and reform taxes to provide “certainty and fairness,” he said.

Rehberg voted Thursday for a bill that passed the Republican-controlled House, to fund the Pentagon for six months, cut $12 billion in domestic spending and keep the federal government for another week.

Obama had called the bill a “distraction from the real work.”

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Rehberg called the bill the “last best chance we have to avert a government shutdown,” and said that the Senate and the White House are presenting no alternatives.

“They don’t even have a reason for saying no,” he said in a statement.

Baucus said it doesn’t help to “finger-point,” and that the two sides should be able to find a compromise.

“It’s always best not to be partisan; do what’s right, that’s what really counts,” he said, without going into detail on how the impasse might be solved.

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