Odds of government shutdown rise as parties snipe over faltering budget talks


House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, March 10 in Washington, D.C. (Jonathan Ernst/GETTY IMAGES)
March 26, 2011

A breakdown late last week in closed-door negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House on funding the federal government makes it increasingly possible that Congress will not agree on a long-term funding resolution or another temporary measure by an April 8 deadline, aides from both parties said.

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

Problems with the negotiations became public late Friday, as revealed in comments from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the top three House Republican leaders. The apparent breakdown followed a Tuesday meeting among staff members for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) 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.

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 health-care and agriculture subsidies programs.

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 the parties agreed to later return to the negotiating table, 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.

The aides from both parties who described the talks spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations were private.

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 from Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), 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.”

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

Schumer’s office shot back in a statement 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.”

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 Reid on Thursday.

“The process is on track,” Baer said.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans say the talks are moving ahead, though at a slow pace, according to senior aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity 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 led 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 would become inevitable.

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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