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 invited the two men to the White House for an evening meeting.
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 public 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 Endeavor's flight on April 29, or Atlantis' trip into space on June 28.
As for the broader talks, it appeared progress had been made both on spending cuts demanded by Republicans and on a series of unrelated provisions they attached to legislation that was approved almost six weeks ago.
A House-passed measure called for $61 billion in cuts, and until recently, the two sides had been working on a framework for $33 billion. Boehner pronounced that insufficient on Tuesday, and floated a $40 billion figure instead.
Democrats disputed any suggestion that they had acceded to that, but some, speaking privately, conceded they were willing to go higher than $33 billion, based on the make-up of the cuts included.
"I think we've made some progress. But we're not finished, not by a long shot," Boehner told reporters after a closed-door meeting with the Republican rank and file, the second of the week he has called as he maneuvers his way through the first significant test for a rambunctious new majority determined to cut spending.
Reid offered no details in an early morning speech that jabbed Boehner.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, second-ranking in the Democratic leadership structure, hinted at movement in the talks. "There's been a direct negotiation — things put on the table that had not been discussed before — and I think we're moving" toward' agreement.
Apart from the spending cuts, Republicans are demanding Democrats and the White House accept at least some of the conservative policy provisions included in the earlier legislation.
Democrats have already ruled out agreeing to stop funding the year-old health care overhaul or to deny Planned Parenthood all federal money. And Reid has said he will not agree to any of the curbs Republicans want to place on the Environmental Protection Agency.
While the political wheels turned, hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the Capitol calling for budget cuts and a shutdown if necessary to get them.
Shut the sucker down," one yelled, and the crowd repeatedly chanted, "Shut it down."
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