WASHINGTON — The White House called for $6.5 billion in immediate spending cuts Thursday as negotiations opened with tea party-backed Republicans in Congress seeking reductions nearly 10 times as large in their drive to reduce the size of federal government.
"The conversation will continue," Vice President Joe Biden said in a one-sentence statement after an hour-long meeting with Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio and other top congressional leaders in the Capitol.
Boehner's spokesman, Brendan Buck, said before the meeting that cuts of that magnitude were "little more than the status quo."
The talks, in Biden's private office just off the Senate floor, marked the beginning of an attempt by the White House and top lawmakers to agree on legislation to cut spending and avert a partial government shutdown when current funding authority expires on March 18.
The White House proposal amounted to an opening bid in what looms as a politically defining set of talks. Polling shows widespread support for spending cuts, but much of the enthusiasm vanishes when reductions are specified as coming from aid to education, for example, or law enforcement at the nation's borders.
Republicans, their ranks swelled by 87 freshmen, passed legislation through the House calling for $61 billion in cuts, coupled with prohibitions on federal regulations proposed to take effect on several industries.
The White House has threatened to veto the measure, and Democrats have attacked it sharply as reckless. But until the meeting, neither had proposed any specific cuts of their own for the current fiscal year.
In addition to Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., attended the talks, as did House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
While the threat of a government shutdown looms over the negotiations, Obama and leading lawmakers have stressed repeatedly they do not want one. For the time being, the government is operating under a two-week spending bill that the president signed into law on Wednesday. It included $4 billion in cuts — included at the insistence of Republicans.
Those already enacted cuts were easy-to-pick fruit. Thursday's White House proposal also represents some of the easiest cuts to make, coming mostly from proposals in Obama's budgets.
Few of the proposed cuts are new ideas. Some $4.2 billion of them represent proposals included in both the House Republican measure and Obama's budgets, according to information supplied by a participant in the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.
The White House's suggested cuts include more than $1 billion in Environmental Protection Agency grants to states that mostly go for clean water projects. There's also $500 million in grants to state and local police departments, and $425 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to state and local governments for homeland security and disaster preparedness. Both are accounts heavily "earmarked" by lawmakers for back-home pet projects.
The White House list also would cut $280 million for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has cancelled, $275 million cut from a program subsidizing community service jobs for low-income senior citizens, and $500 million in rescissions of unneeded money from a program providing food aid to low-income pregnant women and children under the age of 5.
"We're willing to cut further if we can find common ground on a budget that we think reduces spending in the right way while protecting our investments in education, innovation and research," said White House economic adviser Gene Sperling.
The session also marks a new degree of involvement by the White House, which had let the debate over spending play out in Congress with little intervention. The hands off approach frustrated some Democrats who insisted this week that Obama needed to become more engaged.
Republicans who control the House muscled through a bill last month that could cut spending over the next seven months by more than $60 billion from last year's levels — and $100 billion from Obama's budget request. It would also block implementation of Obama's health care law and a host of environmental regulations.
The GOP House measure blended dramatic cuts from almost every domestic agency. It also would block taxpayer money from going to public broadcasting and Planned Parenthood family planning efforts. Money for food inspection, college aid, grants to local schools and police and fire departments, clean water projects, job training and housing subsidies would be reduced.
The White House is supporting $10.5 billion in cuts relative to last year's budget. The White House and Capitol Hill Democrats argue that those aren't the only cuts they support, because they also have agreed to reduce Obama's budget request by more than $40 billion. Republicans seized control of the House last year after promising to cut $100 billion from Obama's request, a figure that's inflated because Obama's budget went nowhere in Congress.
But Democrats are seizing the standard used by Republicans last fall because it similarly inflates their claims about how much has been cut as the government runs on stopgap spending bills frozen at 2010 spending rates.
"Democrats stand ready to meet the Republicans halfway on this," said Pelosi, D-Calif. "That would be fair. We have, I repeat, have cut $41 billion from President Obama's budget already. ... So we've already gone down that path."
That figure, however, does not include any of the $60 billion in real cuts that the Republican-controlled House passed last month.
"It seems that Harry Reid and the vice president have come forward with approximately $40 billion in cuts," said Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., speaking before Biden brought his proposal to the table. "That's the status quo."
Conceding there are different views of what constitutes a spending cut, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said: "While there may be some disputes in math, we remain optimistic we can get this done."
On the GOP side, the spending cut goal is based entirely on meeting the campaign promise. Boehner had earlier tried to sell a plan that would spread the cuts over a complete calendar year rather than cram them into the final few months of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. When he reversed course, the cuts relative to the 2010 budget leaped from $35 billion to $61 billion and included cuts in Head Start, special education and Pell Grants for low-income college students.
"You can't just pick a figure out of the air and just slash," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.