WASHINGTON — Renewed House-Senate budget negotiations aimed at averting a government shutdown center on possibly cutting $33 billion from current spending levels, a senior congressional aide said Wednesday. Democrats pressed to ease GOP cuts to domestic agency budgets by slowing Pentagon growth and trimming so-called mandatory programs whose budgets run on autopilot.
The $33 billion figure is well below the $60 billion-plus in cuts passed by the House last month but also represents significant movement by Senate Democrats originally backing a freeze at current rates. Tea party-backed GOP stalwarts want more, and it's unclear whether they could live with the midway arrangement between top Democrats and Speaker John Boehner.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said "there's no agreement on a number for the spending cuts. Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to."
He said any agreement on spending is dependent on resolution of numerous policy provisions.
The talks are occurring between the members and staff of the House and Senate appropriations committees, who understand the details of the legislation better than the leadership offices that have been doing most of the negotiations so far. Because of the sensitivity of the situation, aides required anonymity to confirm the talks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor, "I'm glad (Boehner) has returned to the conversation."
Publicly, the Ohio Republican and his colleagues are still calling for the Democratic-led Senate to pass its own version of the bill, and Boehner himself says the talks are going so haltingly that he doesn't know the shape of any final legislation that President Barack Obama might sign.
"The Senate says, 'We have a plan.' Well great. Pass the damn thing, all right?" Boehner said. "Send it over here and lets have real negotiations, instead of sitting over there and rooting for a government shutdown."
At issue is must-do 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.
Last month, House Republicans passed a measure cutting 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.
They also strenuously oppose many GOP policy measures catching a ride on the legislation, including a provision to effectively block implementation of Obama's signature health care reform law. Social conservatives also strongly back provisions to cut off money for Planned Parenthood clinics that provide abortions in addition to the family planning services the government funds.
Other controversial policy prescriptions would block the Environmental Protection Agency from carrying out regulations on greenhouse gases and implementing a plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and prohibit the government from shutting down mountaintop mines it believes will cause too much water pollution.
In a gesture aimed at winning the ongoing public relations battle, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the GOP-controlled House would take up legislation on Friday that would automatically enact their original measure unless the Senate steps up and passes a yearlong spending bill by next Friday's midnight shutdown deadline. Cantor said the idea is to prod the Senate to act, but the measure won't go any farther in the Democratic-led Senate than did the original GOP measure.