WASHINGTON — With the clock ticking toward a possible government shutdown, spending-cut talks between Senate Democrats and the Republicans controlling the House have broken off in a whom-do-you-trust battle over legislation to keep operations running for another six months.
Democrats have readied a proposal to cut $20 billion more from this year's budget, a party official said, but they haven't yet sent it to House Republicans. That's because they say it's unclear whether the majority Republicans would accept a split-the-difference bargain they'd earlier hinted at or will yield to demands of tea party-backed GOP freshmen for a tougher measure.
The official spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
"Republicans refuse to negotiate," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared on Monday. "The infighting between the tea party and the rest of the Republican Party — including the Republican leadership in Congress — is keeping our negotiating partner from the negotiating table. And it's pretty hard to negotiate without someone else on the other side of the table," the Nevada Democrat said.
Republicans countered that it's the Democrats who have yet to offer a serious plan to wrestle spending under control and that a Democratic offer from last week to cut $11 billion from the budget was laced with gimmickry.
Time is running short. Staff-level negotiations last week ran aground, and the principals are going to have to pick up the pace to have any chance of making an April 8 deadline to avoid a partial shutdown of the government. Right now it appears that the shutdown that both sides have sworn to avoid is possible — if not probable.
The vehicle for the latest fighting is legislation to bankroll the day-to-day operating budgets of federal agencies — including military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year. Other major tests will soon follow, as House Republicans unveil a blueprint to attack the broader budget mess next week — and a must-do measure to maintain the government's ability to borrow money to meet its responsibilities. Within that context, the current battle involves relatively modest amounts
Last month, House Republicans passed a measure to cut more than $60 billion from the $1.1 trillion budgeted for such programs last year. All the savings were taken from domestic programs and foreign aid, which make up about half of the pot. Democrats in the Senate killed the measure as too extreme, citing cuts to education, health research, food inspection and other programs and services.
Since then, Republicans have won $10 billion in spending cuts as the price for two stopgap measures that have prevented a government shutdown.
Reaching agreement between Democrats and Republicans is proving difficult enough. Then comes the second hurdle for House Speaker John Boehner: convincing his many tea party-backed GOP freshmen that it wouldn't be a sellout to accept the sort of split-the-difference measure President Barack Obama could sign.
Last year, Republicans promised to ratchet spending down to 2008 levels and force Obama to backtrack on generous budget increases made on his watch. To meet the promise, GOP leaders initially pressed for about $35 billion in cuts in a proposal that took account of the fact that the budget year was almost halfway over.
That idea didn't sell with tea party activists, and Boehner was forced to almost double the size of the cuts, driving away any potential Democratic support. Democrats say they're now willing to meet roughly where Boehner started out in the first place — cutting about $70 billion from Obama's requests of more than a year ago, roughly $30 billion below current levels.
The Democrats say Republicans are insisting on using the House-passed legislation slashing more than $60 billion from the current-year budget as the starting point for talks, pulling back from an agreement with Boehner's office to work off a baseline essentially set at last year's levels.
Boehner appears to be in a no-win situation. Any agreement with Obama is sure to incite a revolt among hard-line tea party figures who want the full roster of cuts and an end to funding for Obama's signature health care law. And social conservatives are adamant that the measure cut off money for Planned Parenthood clinics that provide abortions in addition to the family planning services the government funds.
Attempts to outmuscle Obama with legislation that pleases tea partyers, however, could incite a shutdown.
One option circulating among Republicans is to use the Pentagon's budget to pass a short-term measure to avoid a shutdown. It would carry stiffer spending cuts than the $10 billion in bipartisan cuts to earmarks and domestic accounts achieved so far.