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White House raps Congress on budget stalemate

Published: Tuesday, April 5 2011 9:26 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — The White House said Tuesday it was still confident Republicans and Democrats could reach an agreement to fund the government through the end of the year and avoid a shutdown, while admitting frustration at the pace of negotiations.

"We believe a deal is possible," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Carney spoke as President Barack Obama huddled with congressional leaders at the White House for talks aimed at reaching an agreement ahead of a Friday deadline to keep the government operating.

While the White House has been heavily involved in the budget discussions, it has tried to maintain a public distance from the talks, with Obama and aides repeatedly arguing that the spending measure is an appropriations function of Congress, not of the executive branch.

"The fact is that the president is calling this meeting in part because Congress can't get its work done," Carney said.

House Speaker John Boehner has proposed a stopgap weeklong measure to keep the government running past Friday. That includes $12 billion in immediate spending cuts and enough money to operate the Pentagon through the end of September.

While Carney was careful not to say whether the White House would oppose Boehner's specific proposal, he said the administration believes any short-term spending bill would be detrimental to the economy.

"It is counter-productive, we think, to assume that we have to negotiate a short term CR when we have an agreement on the table that can be reached for the full fiscal year," he said.

Boehner has already orchestrated action by Congress to pass a pair of stopgap bills, so far cutting $10 billion from an estimated $1.2 trillion budget to fund the day-to-day operations of government through Sept. 30.

Negotiations have stalled on legislation blending immediate spending cuts with the money required to run federal agencies through the end of September. Democrats are accusing the GOP of pressing harmful spending cuts and attaching a social policy agenda to the must-pass spending bill. Boehner counters that the White House is pressing gimmicky budget cuts.

The White House maintains that lawmakers from both parties have been working off a target number — $33 billion more in cuts — for days. But Boehner has publicly denied any such agreement, saying in a statement that the $33 billion "is not enough, and many of the cuts that the White House and Senate Democrats are talking about are full of smoke and mirrors."

On a separate long-term track, Republicans controlling the House have fashioned plans to slash the budget deficit by more than $5 trillion over the upcoming decade, combining unprecedented spending cuts with a fundamental restructuring of taxpayer-financed health care for the elderly and the poor.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled the GOP budget blueprint Tuesday morning just as Boehner, R-Ohio, headed to the White House for the meeting with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, his chief nemesis in Congress.

Ryan estimated the proposed Republican budget cut at $6.2 trillion over 10 years. And he said in a nationally broadcast interview that lawmakers must find a way to come to grips with the financially ailing Medicaid and Medicare programs, which Ryan called "the drivers" of the federal debt.

While Ryan said that over the coming decade, his budget would slash $6.2 trillion from Obama's spending proposals, the savings as measured against the Congressional Budget Office "baseline" would be less.

And if Ryan follows past practice, he'll adopt Obama's assumption that overseas military operations will soon cost just $50 billion a year rather than current levels that are roughly three times that amount. Some have challenged such an assumption as unrealistic.

Ryan's program also includes a controversial proposal to convert the traditional Medicare program for the aged into a system by which private insurers would operate plans approved by the federal government.

Current Medicare beneficiaries or workers age 55 and older would stay in the existing system.

At the same time, Republicans propose to sharply cut projected spending on the Medicaid state-federal health program for the poor and disabled and transform it into a block grant program that gives governors far less money than under current estimates, but considerably more flexibility.

GOP officials requiring anonymity to discuss the budget before its release Tuesday said more than $1 trillion in savings would come from Medicaid.

Spending on hundreds of domestic programs — the accounts at the heart of the talks to avoid a government shutdown — would be returned to levels at or below those in effect in 2008, producing savings of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Ryan's goal for tax reform calls for a top tax rate of 25 percent for both individuals and corporations, down from the current top rate of 35 percent for both. That would mirror a proposal by Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Ryan embraces the popular goal of simplifying the tax code.

However, Republicans on Monday disclosed plans to instruct lawmakers "on how the House would operate in the event Senate Democrats shut down the government." And the Obama administration advised government agencies to take the proper steps to prepare for a shutdown.

In a memo to agency officials, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jeffrey Zients, urged agency heads to refine and update contingency plans in the event negotiators don't strike a deal by Friday's deadline. The memo was first reported by The Washington Post.

Boehner's one-week measure that cuts an additional $12 billion could reassure tea party-backed lawmakers who are among the most vocal in seeking to reduce the size and scope of the government. It could also put pressure on Democrats and the White House to offer greater spending cuts.

But there's no visible movement on an impasse over GOP policy riders attacking Obama's health care and financial reform laws, cutting taxpayer funds to Planned Parenthood and reversing a host of Obama's environmental policies.

Under the decidedly arcane congressional budget process, the GOP plan is not actual legislation but provides a nonbinding, theoretical framework for future actions of Congress.

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