With ‘time short,’ Congress still at impasse on shutdown talks

With the possibility of a government shutdown again drawing closer, Congress is set to resume discussing federal funding for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, although a staff-level impasse remains unresolved.

No formal talks are scheduled, but the three-sided talks among top aides to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and President Obama are expected to resume after a zigzag period of solid progress followed by partisan sniping by the end of last week.

Those discussions broke down when the participants could not agree on the starting point from which to begin reaching middle ground, according to those familiar with the talks.

All sides are pushing for a comprehensive deal before the current funding resolution expires April 8, because neither side wants to approve another short-term extension of funding.

Six of those stopgap measures have kept federal agencies operating for the first half of fiscal 2011. Without any action, the first government shutdown since the 1990s would hit April 9.

Democrats and administration officials said Monday that they had come close to reaching a framework that would result in $30 billion to $36 billion being cut from federal agencies through the final seven months of 2011. That would be less than the $61 billion in cuts House Republicans approved in legislation last month, but very close to the initial level of cuts that GOP leaders sought before their conservative wing demanded steeper spending reductions.

Still unsettled among the aides is what to do with dozens of policy prescriptions on contentious social and regulatory issues that were attached to the House legislation.

“Our patience and the American people’s patience is wearing thin,” Reid said Monday as he reopened the Senate after a week-long break. “We have only two weeks before the current temporary budget expires. Time is not on our side, so it’s time to get to work.”

Republicans continued to blame Reid and noted that they are still waiting to see the latest proposal from Obama’s budget director, Jacob Lew, and Senate Democrats, who have not passed their own 2011 spending plan through their chamber.

“Senator Reid failed to pass a budget last year and once again is abandoning his responsibility to offer a credible plan to cut spending and fund the government for the rest of the year,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Monday.

Temporary funding resolutions that Congress approved earlier this month have already cut $10 billion from federal agencies. Democrats want to start from that point before adding further reductions, but House Republicans have demanded that lawmakers work downward from their already-passed $61 billion in cuts, both sides said.

“At this point, the House has done its work by passing a bill, and the Democrats who run Washington have not,” said Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel.

Republicans are adamant about proceeding this way because it allows the conversation to begin with their policy riders, some of which they insist on including in the final package. The most controversial include restrictions and limitations on federal funds going toward health services at Planned Parenthood; the implementation of Obama’s health-care law that was approved last year; and the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions.

A Democratic official familiar with the discussions said that Lew objected to starting with the House bill because it has already been rejected in the Senate and then ended a contentious meeting. “Let’s get back together when we’re ready to work,” Lew told the congressional aides, according to the Democrat, who requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door talks.

Vice President Biden has since spoken to Boehner and Reid by phone, prompting the parties to agree to draw up proposals for cuts in the range of $30 billion to $36 billion. Democrats said Monday they do not intend to formally offer their proposal until they believe a deal is within reach.

Another point of contention is a demand, as one Democrat put it, “to broaden the frame” of cuts. Rather than taking the cuts entirely from the discretionary budget, Democrats are eager to include items from the much larger portion of the budget that finances mandatory programs, otherwise known as entitlements.

For example, Obama proposed in his most recent budget request reducing commodity payments to wealthy farmers for a savings of $2.5 billion over the next decade (though the proposal would save nothing this year). The budget also proposes to eliminate Pell college grants for summer school, for a savings of $60 million this year. And it offers a host of provisions intended to streamline the major government health programs, Medicare and Medicaid, in part by expanding federal program integrity authority.

Republicans are resisting this approach.

Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.

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