Shutdown averted, White House calls for talks

By Lisa Mascaro

Tribune Washington Bureau

Published: Wednesday, March 2 2011 10:37 p.m. MST

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to a stopgap measure to fund the government for two weeks and President Barack Obama called on congressional leaders to negotiate a lasting spending plan that quells the continuing risk of a federal shutdown.

But the prospect for political drama quickly confronted the White House request for talks, as Republican leaders declined to immediately agree to attend the first meeting, which could be held as soon as Thursday.

The White House said that Vice President Joe Biden would lead talks, intended to break an impasse between congressional Democrats and Republicans over the scope of federal budget reductions. Republicans insist on extracting more than $60 billion through September, a proposal Democrats say is reckless.

With both parties privately doubtful about prospects for an agreement by March 18, when the two-week spending plan expires, the White House stepped in to prevent a succession of temporary measures, which officials worry will create uncertainty in the economy.

"We will look to these negotiations to find the common ground that we believe exists," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Republican leaders would not immediately say whether they would attend, demanding that Democrats first present their own budget offer, rather than simply criticizing the GOP's cuts. Republicans also complained that the White House did not personally extend an invitation.

"It's time for them to outline for us what's their position to keep the government funded," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "We've done our work."

Democrats maintain their opening offer is already on the table — a freeze in spending levels. Coupled with the reductions passed Wednesday, they contend they are halfway to meeting the GOP goal for federal spending reductions.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, dismissed GOP pressure to present a new Democratic plan as "foolishness."

"That's what negotiations are all about," Reid said.

The nature of the reductions sought by Republicans brought a renewed round of objections. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton again warned against steep foreign aid cuts, which she said would weaken national security.

"There have always been moments of temptation in our country to resist obligations beyond our borders. But each time we have shrunk from global leadership, events have summoned us back to reality," Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"We saved money in the short term when we walked away from Afghanistan after the Cold War, but those savings came at an unspeakable cost, one we are still paying 10 years later, in money and lives," she said.

Senate passage of the two-week measure provides only a momentary reprieve to the ongoing risk of a government shutdown. Funding would have expired Friday if action was not taken.

Democrats increasingly have pressed the White House to play a larger public role in the spending debate as they battle an emboldened GOP and its tea party adherents, who enjoy broad public support for reining in government. The White House insists it continually has been involved in discussions.

Once the White House talks get under way, the scope of negotiations could broaden beyond the 2011 fiscal year budget. Congress is approaching a controversial vote to raise the nation's legal debt limit, which is expected as soon as mid-April. Talks could also expand to address other deficit reduction measures.

The stopgap measure approved Wednesday would shave $4 billion from federal outlays over two weeks, gutting programs Obama had characterized as unneeded and had targeted for elimination in fiscal 2012. The legislation also ends various congressional directed earmark expenditures.

As in the House, which passed the temporary measure this week, the package received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate as Republicans and Democrats both sought to avoid blame for a government shutdown.

The Senate approved it 91-9, with five Republicans, three Democrats and one political independent voting no. Obama quickly signed the measure into law Wednesday.

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