As budget impasse drags on, government agencies operate in limbo

March 26, 2011

A breakdown this week in closed-door negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House on funding the federal government spilled into the open late Friday, with aides from both parties now saying it’s possible Congress may not agree on a long-term funding resolution or another temporary measure by an April 8 deadline.

That means that the threat of a government shutdown — which had receded in recent weeks because of Congress’s approval of several stopgap funding measures — appears to be back on the table.

In a statement Friday night, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said that if the government shuts down, the blame would be squarely on Democrats’ shoulders.

“If Democrats don’t have a plan, do they intend to shut down the government because they can’t agree among themselves?” Boehner asked. “The status quo is unacceptable, and right now that is all Washington Democrats are offering.”

Asked for comment on the negotiations Friday, the White House budget office declined to discuss the details of the meetings, which it said “were agreed by all to be confidential.”

Budget office spokesman Kenneth Baer added, however, that there have been “ongoing discussions at many levels” and noted that Vice President Biden spoke with Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday.

“The process is on track,” Baer said.

Friday’s public sniping, which was conducted in a stream of e-mailed statements between Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the top three House Republican leaders, followed a Tuesday meeting among staff members for Boehner and Reid and representatives of the White House budget office on a possible deal for funding the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. Aides from both parties who described the talks declined to speak on the record, requesting anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

Democratic aides said talks had been underway for nearly two weeks between Boehner’s staff and the White House budget office, with steady progress leading to an agreement that the two sides would meet halfway between the $61 billion in cuts approved by the House and Democrats’ preference for maintaining current spending levels.

Since $10 billion in cuts had already been approved in two temporary funding resolutions, that position would require Democrats to come up with only an additional $20 billion to $25 billion — some of which Democrats hoped to take from mandatory programs such as health care and agriculture subsidies.

But on Tuesday, according to Democrats, House Republicans changed the terms, insisting that negotiations start with the House-passed bill and that Democrats identify the cuts they couldn’t accept.

Such a move would force Democrats to go on record defending programs that Republicans had identified as wasteful. In the meeting Tuesday, White House budget director Jacob J. Lew balked at the terms and walked out of the meeting, Democratic aides said.

Republican aides blamed Lew for the impasse, saying it was the White House that had demanded unreasonable terms.

Aides said the breakdown in Tuesday’s meeting led Boehner’s staff to ask about the possibility of another stopgap bill — which other House leadership offices said was impossible, given the brewing opposition to what would be the seventh such bill in the first six months of fiscal 2011.

Fifty-four Republicans and 104 Democrats voted against the last stopgap measure, an increase from the six Republicans and 85 Democrats who voted against a two-week funding bill earlier in the month.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans believe the talks are moving ahead but at a slow pace, according to senior aides who requested anonymity to speak about their internal deliberations. Not enough “big decisions” have been made for leaders to feel confident they can meet the April 8 deadline, according to one aide.

Complicating that deadline are the new rules that the House imposed at the start of the new Congress, which require a bill to be publicly unveiled 72 hours before any consideration on the House floor.

If Republicans commit to keeping that pledge, they would need to have a deal completed and a bill drafted by the night of April 5 to vote on the legislation the evening of April 8, sending it to the Senate — where procedural hurdles could further delay consideration for a few days.

This has prompted many senior congressional aides, in both parties, to say they need a resolution keeping the government open for just a few more days — or else a brief shutdown of the federal government will be inevitable.

The tensions became public Friday evening following a remark that morning by Schumer on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that “some progress” was being made in the talks.

That prompted a quick succession of statements Friday evening by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Boehner, all of whom denounced Schumer’s comments and accused Democrats of intending to cause a government shutdown.

Cantor described Schumer’s remarks as “completely far-fetched” and argued that Schumer, Reid and the White House “continue to abandon their responsibility to get our fiscal house in order by negotiating off of the status quo and refusing to offer any sort of serious plan for how to cut spending.” Statements from Boehner and McCarthy echoing Cantor soon followed.

A little more than an hour after Cantor released his statement, Schumer’s office shot back that “after days of positive negotiations, with significant flexibility shown by the Speaker, the House Republican leadership is back to agonizing over whether to give in to right-wing demands that they abandon any compromise on their extreme cuts.”

The impasse was due not to Democrats, Schumer argued, but to the fact that Boehner had become beholden in the budget talks to his class of 87 freshmen, many of whom were elected with tea party support.

“The Speaker knows that when it comes to avoiding a shutdown, his problem is with the tea party, not Democrats,” Schumer said. “Instead of lashing out at Democrats in a kneejerk way, we hope House Republicans will finally stand up to the tea party and resume the negotiations that had seemed so full of promise.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
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