Susan Walsh, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Senate's second ranking Democrat said Wednesday that negotiators on the budget are making progress but that conservative GOP policy prescriptions remain obstacles as they scramble to avert a government shutdown this weekend.
"I feel better today than I did yesterday," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "There's been a direct negotiation — things put on the table that had not been discussed before and I think we're moving towards closure."
Durbin's remarks represented a break in the daily shutdown blame game that's been consuming Washington recently.
At the same time, President Barack Obama placed a brief call to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on the negotiations. Boehner's office said the speaker told Obama he was hopeful a deal could be reached. Obama left Washington in the early afternoon for events in Philadelphia and New York.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, said the president was prepared to call a meeting of congressional leaders at the White House "at whatever hour of the day is necessary if he believes that progress is not being made."
"As of right now," Carney added, "there are reports of progress on the Hill."
Elsewhere on Wednesday, the combatants charged each other would be to blame if compromise talks on the budget fail to produce an agreement.
"Democrats' bottom line hasn't changed. Republicans' bottom line hasn't stayed still," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, one day after meeting privately with House Speaker John Boehner to try and get talks back on track.
The Nevada Democrat said that Boehner "has a choice to make, and not much time to make it: He can do either what the tea party wants, or what the country needs."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a different analysis.
Democrats "still haven't come up with an alternative to the various Republican proposals we've seen to keep the government up and running in the current fiscal year," the Kentucky Republican said. "They've just sat on the sidelines taking potshots at everything Republicans have proposed while rooting for a shutdown."
Durbin warned that GOP policy "riders" that Democrats mostly oppose "are still on the table."
The government faces a partial shutdown Friday at midnight if Congress doesn't take action to avoid one. Negotiations on legislation to keep federal agencies running is hung up over negotiations over a Republican demand for steep spending cuts.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said on a network morning news show that "some progress was made" in talks late Tuesday and said "we've met the other side more than half way" at $33 billion in proposed cuts from the current-year budget.
But the New York Democrat also said that if talks collapse and a government shutdown happens, it will be the tea party's fault. He said tea party-backed Republicans in the House "have demanded that cuts be in a very small portion of the budget," such as cancer research, student aid and public broadcasting. He said tea party Republicans "have an ideology to just get rid of all government," regardless of whether programs are working.
Tuesday's White House meeting involving Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., failed to produce the hoped-for breakthrough, however, with a stopgap government funding bill set to expire Friday at midnight.
Obama ratcheted up the pressure afterward, sounding exasperated with Republicans for not warming to a White House proposal that matched, more or less, an earlier GOP framework proposed in February. In it, Democrats propose cuts netting $73 billion in savings below Obama's original requests — or $33 billion below current spending levels.
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