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Shutdown talks but no deal as clock ticks down

By David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 7 2011 4:40 p.m. MDT

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens at left, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, April 7, 2011, after their meeting with President Obama regarding the budget and possible government shutdown.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and congressional leaders bargained and blustered by turns Thursday, still short of an agreement to cut federal spending and head off a midnight Friday government shutdown that no one claimed to want.

Obama met with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., at the White House at midday, and the three agreed to reconvene after dinner. In the interim, they dispatched aides to pursue a deal in negotiations in the Capitol.

With an agreement elusive, Republicans passed legislation through the House to fund the Pentagon for six months, cut $12 billion in domestic spending and keep the federal bureaucracy humming for an additional week.

Obama threatened to veto the bill even before it passed on a 247-181, mostly party-line vote. The administration issued a statement calling it "a distraction from the real work" of agreeing on legislation to cover the six months left in the current fiscal year.

Each side insisted the other would be to blame for the pain of a partial shutdown.

In a shift in position, Obama said he would sign a short-term measure to give negotiations more time to succeed.

That was one of the options available to Reid, although Boehner said he was confident Democratic lawmakers would persuade "Reid and our commander in chief to keep the government from shutting down" by signing the House-passed bill.

At the White House, a senior budget official said the impact of a shutdown "will be immediately felt on the economy."

It also would be felt unevenly, said Jeff Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Military troops would not receive their full paychecks, but Social Security recipients would still get monthly benefits, he said.

"National parks, national forests and the Smithsonian Institution would all be closed. The NIH Clinical Center will not take new patients, and no new clinical trials will start," he added in a roll call of expected agency closings.

But the air traffic control system would stay up and running, the emergency management agency would still respond to natural disasters and border security would not be affected.

There was no indication Reid planned to bring the House-passed stopgap bill to a vote, and he accused Republicans of blocking a deal by demanding anti-abortion provisions and a blockade on Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gas and other pollutants.

"We don't have the time to fight over the tea party's extreme social agenda," he said.

It was unclear whether the day's maneuvering marked attempts by negotiators to gain final concessions before reaching agreement, or represented a significant setback to efforts to avoid a shutdown.

Either way, Boehner pointed out that the current clash was only the first of many likely to follow as the new, conservative majority in the House pursues its goals of reducing the size and scope of government.

"All of us want to get on with the heavy lifting that is going to come right behind it, dealing with the federal debt and putting in place a budget for next year," he said.

For all the tough talk, it did not appear the two sides were too far from a deal.

Officials in both parties said that in the past day or so, Democrats had tacitly agreed to slightly deeper spending cuts than they had been willing to embrace, at least $34.5 billion in reductions.

Agreement on that point was conditional on key details, but it was a higher total than the $33 billion that had been under consideration.

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