WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators struggling to prevent a government shutdown next week are working on a proposal built around $33 billion in spending cuts over the next six months — considerably less than tea party activists demanded.
The tentative split-the-differences plan would end up where GOP leaders started last month as they tried to fulfill a campaign pledge to return spending for agencies' daily operations to levels in place before President Barack Obama took office. That calculation takes into account the fact that the current budget year, which began Oct. 1, is about half over.
The $33 billion figure, disclosed by a congressional aide familiar with the talks, is well below the $60 billion-plus in cuts that the House passed last month. But it does represent significant movement by Senate Democrats and the administration after originally backing a freeze at current rates.
Tea party-backed GOP lawmakers want more. With a tea party rally set for Thursday on Capitol Hill, it's unclear how many of the 87 freshmen Republicans elected last fall could live with the arrangement between top Democrats and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Both sides said the figure under consideration is tentative at best and depends on the outcome of numerous policy stands written into the bill. 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."
The White House said Vice President Joe Biden and budget director Jacob Lew planned to meet Wednesday evening at the Capitol with Senate Democratic leaders.
A Democratic lawmaker familiar with a meeting Wednesday between Obama and members of the Congressional Black Caucus said the administration made it clear that some House GOP proposals restricting the Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory powers would have to make it into the final bill. In order to characterize the White House's position, the lawmaker insisted on anonymity because the meeting was private.
Some of those proposals would block the government from carrying out regulations on greenhouse gases, putting in place a plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and from shutting down mountaintop mines it believes will cause too much water pollution.
While some conservatives appear insistent on the full range of spending cuts, others recognize that compromise is required to win Obama's signature and support from Democrats who control the Senate.
"Compromise on the subject of spending is a tough sell. It doesn't mean it's an impossible sell," said freshman Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. "There is a serious mandate to cut spending. Now having said that, I also live in a realistic world and I understand the dynamics involved in having one leg of a three-legged stool under our control."
Far bigger fights are ahead on a longer-term GOP budget plan that takes a more comprehensive approach to the budget woes. Also looming is a must-pass bill to allow the government to borrow more money to meet its commitments. Republicans hope to use that measure to force further spending cuts on the president.
"I don't believe that shutting down government is a solution to the problem. Republicans and Democrats need to work out a compromise," said Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H. "Let's get this over with and get on to the budget."
But Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who earlier warned that "It's time to pick a fight," wants party leaders to hang tough.
"You never get a second chance at making a first impression," Pence said. "Our first impression with the American people needs to be that we kept our word and we found the budget savings that we promised to find. I'm still cautiously optimistic that we're going to do just that."
The talks are 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 so far have conducted most of the negotiations.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was glad that Boehner "has returned to the conversation."
Boehner and his colleagues are calling for the Senate to pass its own version, and Boehner says the talks are going so haltingly that he doesn't know the shape of any final legislation that 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 let's have real negotiations, instead of sitting over there and rooting for a government shutdown."
The legislation would bankroll the day-to-day operating budgets of federal agencies — including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — through Sept. 30, the end of the current budget year.
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 cuts came from domestic programs and foreign aid, which make up about half of the pot. Senate Democrats said that was too extreme and they killed the plan, citing cuts to education, health research, food inspection and other programs and services.
They also oppose many GOP policy stands attached to the spending plan, including one that effectively would block implementation of the new health care law. Social conservatives also strongly back cutting off money for Planned Parenthood clinics that provide abortions in addition to the family planning services the government funds.
In a gesture aimed at winning the public relations battle, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the House would consider legislation Friday that automatically would enact the GOP's original measure unless the Senate passed a yearlong spending bill by next Friday's midnight shutdown deadline.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.