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Congress, Obama brace for showdown as government shutdown looms

Jolted to action by deficit-conscious newcomers, the Republican-controlled House passed sweeping legislation early Saturday to cut $61 billion from hundreds of federal programs. (Feb 19)

What Boehner gained in credibility with the freshmen, though, he lost in terms of bipartisan outreach. Democrats, happy to be allowed to have votes on dozens of their own amendments, still unanimously rejected the final legislation. The final vote was 235 to 189; Republicans alone favored dramatic spending cuts, and three GOP representatives - two of whom thought the cuts didn't go deep enough - joined 186 Democrats in opposing the bill.

In an effort to appear frugal in their own right, Senate Democrats say they plan to cut $41 billion. But that is based on Obama's 2011 budget proposal, which was never enacted. In real-world terms, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's budget would keep spending at current levels.

House leaders used this same math to claim that their $61 billion in cuts was equivalent to $100 billion, the amount Republicans pledged in their campaigns last fall.

Either way the numbers are counted, the two sides remain more than $60 billion apart.

"Democrats are demonstrating a good faith effort to reduce the deficit and prevent a government shutdown," Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement Saturday.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) immediately rejected Reid's approach, saying cuts had to be made to deal with an annual federal deficit predicted to hit $1.6 trillion this year.

"Americans have been clear: Freezing in place the current unsustainable spending levels is simply unacceptable," McConnell said.

If enacted as is, the GOP plan would eliminate numerous programs, including the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs the AmeriCorps program, and it would terminate federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It would cut $600 million from border security and immigration programs. It would eliminate nearly $80 million for the District and slash funding for the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

On Friday and Saturday, Republicans approved measures that would provide narrow savings but impose sharp policy prescriptions, including the abolition of any federal funding going to Planned Parenthood and the restriction of any funds going toward the implementation of Obama's health-care law.

"They are so out of touch with reality, it's breathtaking," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the environment committee, said in an interview Saturday, noting the $2 billion cut in the EPA's ability to monitor clean air. "The public would not stand for this in the light of day. If you want to repeal a law, let's introduce a bill to repeal the Clean Air Act and let's have at it."

This debate is the first of several showdowns between the House and Senate, which could culminate later this spring when the federal debt limit must be raised or else the government will begin defaulting on its loans. Republicans have said they won't extend the limit without major budgetary reforms.

"It's going to be fascinating here over the next few weeks and months as we work our way through this," Boehner said. "But these are going to be the most important two, three, four months that we have seen in this town in decades. It's all one fight."

Some lawmakers are hopeful that McConnell's renewed friendship with the White House, particularly his former Senate colleague, Vice President Biden, could pave the way for a deal similar to the one struck in December that led to large bipartisan votes for a tax-cut package. Last week, while backing his House GOP colleagues, McConnell signaled a desire for another round of private talks similar to those that he and Biden held in December that led to the tax deal.

"Can I foresee a situation in which both sides have to bring votes to the table? Yes," said House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). However, Hoyer quickly noted that the December deal came before the freshmen were sworn into the House. "It's different players, and the new crowd demonstrated to their leaders this week that they were focused first on their promises," he said, adding, "A lot of them don't know the ramifications in their own communities of what they're doing."

Boehner reveled Friday night in both the impending victory and the unusually open process that stretched through most of the week, allowing hundreds of amendments to be proposed and more than 100 of them to receive votes. He took a victory lap through the lobby off the chamber floor and engaged reporters in an unplanned 25-minute question-and-answer session, contending that the wide-open process produced a "real debate" that stood in stark contrast to "watching 20 years of leaders tighten down the process, tighten down the process, tighten down the process."

"This is diving off the 50-foot diving board on your first dive," he said.

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