But there is one big obstacle in the way of a long-term deal, one that goes beyond the arguments over dollars and cents. The budget proposal the House Republican majority approved this year included a number of unrelated amendments — riders, in Congress-speak — that would impose restrictions on federal agencies.
One rider would prohibit federal money from going to Planned Parenthood. Another would curtail the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to monitor air and water, and restrict the use of funds to inspect coal mines.
For Democrats, these riders are deal-breakers, and they are the ideological fault line in talks taking place this week.
“We have to get beyond this political bumper-sticker museum,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said, accusing Republicans of reverting to the social-issue wars of the 1980s and 1990s.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), however, has delivered a much different message to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and the Obama administration. “A bill without any riders cannot pass the House,” a senior House GOP aide said, requesting anonymity to discuss Boehner’s internal deliberations.
The two congressional leaders, Boehner and Reid, find themselves in a difficult situation. Both are skilled dealmakers, and they both know they must both find a way to claim partial victory — Boehner by persuading Reid to keep some of the Republican riders intact, and Reid by persuading Boehner to remove the provisions that most incense Democrats.
Boehner is in an especially tough spot. He oversees the largest Republican majority in more than 60 years. But it includes 87 newcomers who were elected in part because they railed against these kinds of backroom deals. So far, the Class of 2010 has been willing to follow Boehner’s lead, approving by wide margins two recent short-term spending resolutions that kept the government running in exchange for $10 billion in savings.
Yet their patience, as well as that of the nearly 100 other party conservatives emboldened by the freshmen, has run thin. One freshman, using this week’s congressional recess to hold town hall and community meetings, found himself undecided about whether he would demand a perfect bill, risking a shutdown, or settle for a compromise.
“Some people are saying, just get the most [spending cuts] that you can possibly get, and get going” onto bigger matters like next year’s budget and entitlement reforms, Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said in an interview Wednesday. “And there’s other people who are saying, ‘Hey, you know, shut [the government] down. It’s not the end of the world.’ ”
Boehner now thinks that if he cuts a funding deal for the remainder of 2011 that does not include any of the policy riders, the freshmen would lead a Republican revolt, according to senior GOP aides.
Boehner is said to be willing to pass a compromise bill that would appeal to most of the Republicans and attract some Democrats to clear the 218-vote hurdle for a majority. But it is doubtful that he would agree, in his first major deal as speaker, to anything that sharply divides his 241-member conference.
Meanwhile, Reid is shepherding a caucus whose ranks have shrunk by seven senators since January 2010, clinging to a majority of 53. He is loath to accept a compromise that would infuriate the liberal wing of his caucus.
“Not only no, but hell no,” Reid told reporters last week when asked whether his chamber’s Democrats would tolerate the rider eliminating Planned Parenthood funding.
Some Democrats admit that they are willing to support a final 2011 deal that makes steep cuts in federal spending, as long as the package is free of the policy riders, such as those restrictions on Planned Parenthood and the EPA.
“If the riders stay out, it becomes significantly more doable,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said.
House and Senate leaders are eager to get past the 2011 budget impasse — which is leftover from last year, when the Democrat-led House and Senate couldn’t agree on a budget — because it is diverting their attention from the larger and more difficult issues that await.
A contentious vote on whether to lift the debt ceiling above its current $14.3 trillion is slated for late spring. And a bipartisan collection of more than five dozen senators is demanding sweeping action on the most pressing fiscal issues facing the government: reforming entitlements such as Medicaid and Medicare, and simplifying the cumbersome federal tax code.
This week, 64 senators — 32 Democrats and 32 Republicans — sent President Obama a letter urging his involvement in the budget negotiations.
“We urge you to engage in a broader discussion about a comprehensive deficit reduction package,” the group wrote. “Specifically, we hope that the discussion will include discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform.”