WASHINGTON — Time growing short, Congress' leaders reported making headway Wednesday in talks to cut spending and avert a partial government shutdown that the White House warned would hit U.S. combat troops abroad and taxpayer refunds from the IRS at home.
President Barack Obama checked in separately by phone with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., then held a late-night meeting with the two men and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama decided to call the session after concluding not enough progress had been made during the day, and the president blamed business as usual in the nation's capital politics for the deadlock that threatened disruptions beginning Friday at midnight.
"I do not want to see Washington politics stand in the way of America's progress," he said in Fairless Hills, Pa.
Democratic officials suggested their side had agreed to consider additional cuts in the previous 24 hours. But any movement took place in secret, while the maneuvering was on public display.
Determined to avoid political blame if a shutdown occurs, Boehner said the House would vote Thursday on a one-week stopgap bill to keep the government open while cutting $12 billion in spending and providing the Pentagon with enough money to stay open until the Sept. 30 end of the budget year.
"I think this is the responsible thing to do for the U.S. Congress, and I would hope the Senate can pass it and the president can sign it into law," he said.
He also criticized Obama, though saying he likes the commander in chief personally. "The president isn't leading," Boehner said. "He didn't lead on last year's budget, and he's not leading on this year's budget."
A few hours later, Reid said Democrats kept offering concessions, and Republicans rejected them.
"We meet them halfway, they say no. We meet them more than halfway, they still say no. We meet them all the way, they still say no. If Republicans were really worried about keeping the government running, all they would have to do is say yes."
Obama has already ruled out the weeklong measure Republicans intend to push through the House, and Senate Democrats have labeled it a non-starter. Republican officials said the details of the bill could yet change. But passage of any interim measure is designed to place the onus on the Democratic-controlled Senate to act if a shutdown is to be avoided.
The White House used its unmatched megaphone to emphasize the stakes involved in the negotiations, arranging a briefing for the presidential press corps on the ramifications of a partial government shutdown.
The officials who spoke did so on condition of anonymity, under rules set by White House aides eager to apply pressure to congressional negotiators.
The officials said that military personnel at home and abroad would receive one week's pay instead of two in their next checks. Among those affected would be troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the region around Libya.
Tax audits would be suspended — welcome news to some, no doubt — but there were unhappy tidings for others. Income tax returns filed on paper would pile up at the IRS, and refunds would be delayed as a result.
National parks would close, as would the Smithsonian Institution and its world-class collection of museums clustered along the National Mall within sight of the Capitol. Officials were less clear about the Cherry Blossom Festival, scheduled for this weekend in Washington.
NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said he was unable to predict what the impact would be on preparations for the shuttle Endeavour's flight on April 29, or Atlantis' trip into space on June 28.
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