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Heat Rises in Fight Over Spending

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday said tea party pressure had kept Speaker John Boehner from the negotiating table on federal spending over the weekend.

As the White House prepared an offer to cut an additional $20 billion to end the budget stalemate on Capitol Hill, House and Senate leaders ramped up their rhetoric over who would bear the blame if the government shuts down.

The forthcoming White House proposal, which Republicans have yet to see, would look to cut about $30 billion in federal spending overall, $20 billion more than the $10 billion already cut by stopgap spending bills, according to Democratic aides. That’s about half of the $61 billion included in the long-term spending plan approved by House Republicans earlier this year.

Although the White House proposal goes well beyond what many liberal Members want, it’s not clear whether it will be enough to win GOP support. The two sides have in recent days been blaming one another for the spending impasse, and each is facing enormous pressure from its right and left flanks not to compromise. 

“Where is the plan?” asked a senior GOP aide who complained that the White House and Senate Democrats had yet to agree among themselves over what to cut or present it to Republicans.

“We can’t negotiate with them until they’re on the same page,” the aide said. 

Many of the cuts sought by the White House would target mandatory spending programs instead of discretionary accounts, and administration officials are continuing to resist a host of policy riders on social issues included in the GOP plan.

Senate Democrats had offered an
$11 billion package of cuts last week to House Republicans, who rejected it as a non-starter. That package consisted of
$7.5 billion from mandatory accounts and $2.5 billion from discretionary accounts.

At the same time, Members have been fighting over where to even begin the negotiations. Senate Democrats wanted to use the earlier stopgap bills as the starting point and build up. House Republicans were insisting on starting with
H.R. 1 as the framework for talks, and negotiate down. H.R. 1 is the original plan passed by House Republicans containing the $61 billion in spending reductions.

A senior House GOP aide said Monday that the breakdown over where to even begin the talks does not bode well for Congress’ ability to avoid a government shutdown in two weeks when the current continuing resolution expires. “I don’t think there is a state of play right now,” the aide said.

And even if the two sides strike a compromise, House Republican leaders still have to sell it to their rank-and-file Members.

For instance, the House leadership’s original $32 billion spending cut plan — which was scuttled in favor of the final $61 billion bill after a conservative backlash — has been widely discussed as a possible middle ground for a compromise. Although some Senate Democrats have rejected that idea, Republicans said they believe that if it had sign-off from leadership, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could quickly put together enough Democratic and Republican votes to push it through the chamber. “That would pass. It could pass the Senate,” a House Republican aide speculated.

The problem, however, would be the House GOP Conference. “It doesn’t pass the House” unless significant social policy riders are attached to it, the aide predicted. 

According to GOP aides, conservative activists have been pushing hard for Republicans to hold the line, and during last week’s recess, Members saw that pressure firsthand at town halls and other events.

As a result, there may be little incentive for Republicans to cede any ground to Democrats.

“My guess is they’re going to come back ready to fight,” one veteran GOP aide predicted.

With negotiations seemingly stuck, press releases, tweets and partisan speeches filled the void, as both sides tried to blame the other for a potential shutdown.

On Monday, Reid charged that tea party pressure kept Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) from coming to the bargaining table over the weekend.

“I am extremely disappointed that after weeks of productive negotiations with Speaker Boehner, Tea Party Republicans are scrapping all the progress we have made and threatening to shut down the government if they do not get all of their extreme demands,” the Nevada Democrat said in a statement. “The division between the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans is preventing us from reaching a responsible solution on a long-term budget that will make smart cuts while protecting American jobs, and prevented negotiations from taking place over the weekend even as the clock ticks toward a government shutdown.”

Reid has his own problems with liberals in his caucus unhappy about making additional spending cuts and wary that the White House may be willing to give up too much.  

A GOP aide, however, said talks between the two sides occurred “every day” last week and by phone Monday; the aide maintained that negotiations haven’t broken down.

Even so, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) ripped Senate Democrats for failing to pass a long-term spending bill through the Senate. 

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Democrats are desperately trying to divert attention from their own intraparty divisions and continue to back “essentially” status quo spending levels.

“No agreement will be made or announced until all of the outstanding issues — including funding limitations — are settled,” Steel said. “At this point, the House has done its work by passing a bill, and the Democrats who run Washington have not. No spin can change that fact.”

Cantor, meanwhile, accused Democrats of trying to force both a tax increase and a government shutdown.

“It is clear that because Senator Reid refuses to make any spending cuts, he instead plans to force a massive future tax hike on families and small business people. In the scope of our debt crisis, if Senator Reid and Sen. Schumer force the government to partially shut down over these sensible spending cuts, Americans will hold them accountable,” Cantor said in a statement.

There was also dispute brewing behind the scenes over which side — and who — was doing more to undermine the talks. 

Democrats targeted the tea party movement for keeping GOP leaders on the negotiating  sidelines, while Republicans argued that Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) undermined the talks by making what they charged were inflammatory and counterproductive statements about the GOP’s role. 

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