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Budget talks aimed at avoiding shutdown resume

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 30 2011 3:10 p.m. MDT

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP leaders comment on the Senate Democratic leadership and the problems in passing a long-term spending bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 29, 2011. He is joined, from left to right by, Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

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."

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