Obama invites congressional leaders to meet with Biden on budget

By Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 10:41 PM

President Obama on Wednesday intervened in a partisan brawl that threatens to shut down the government, inviting congressional leaders of both parties to sit down with Vice President Biden and work out a compromise to fund federal programs through the end of the fiscal year.

The president reached out to lawmakers after the Senate approved a stopgap measure to keep the government open through March 18. The resolution, which passed 91 to 9, will give legislators extra time to negotiate the longer-term deal. Obama signed the measure Wednesday afternoon.

The stopgap bill eliminates $4 billion in spending by cutting programs Obama had already targeted - a far less ambitious measure than House Republicans wanted. But with the clock ticking toward a Friday deadline and polls showing the public strongly opposed to a shutdown, GOP leaders were willing to make concessions.

In a joint news conference after the Senate vote, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters that Republicans would go no further until Senate Democrats offered a counter-proposal to the $61 billion package of cuts that the House approved in late February.

Obama said in a statement that he would enlist Biden, White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley and budget director Jacob J. Lew to meet with congressional leaders. They could sit down as early as Thursday. Biden is scheduled to leave Sunday for a week-long trip to Finland, Russia and Moldova.

"I'm pleased that Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together and passed a plan that will cut spending and keep the government running for the next two weeks. But we cannot keep doing business this way," Obama said after the Senate approved the resolution. "Living with the threat of a shutdown every few weeks is not responsible, and it puts our economic progress in jeopardy."

Lawmakers face deep partisan divisions as they attempt to tackle the nation's fiscal problems.

Five Senate Republicans, three Democrats and one independent voted against Wednesday's stopgap measure. The Republicans - Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.), James E. Risch (Idaho) and Mike Crapo (Idaho) - are staunch conservatives. Lee and Paul were elected in November with strong tea party support. They don't think the Senate bill cuts nearly enough.

Lee called the legislation "a disappointing failure on the part of both parties to seriously address the economic meltdown we face from our massive deficit and growing national debt."

Meanwhile, the Democrats - Tom Harkin (Iowa), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), along with independent Bernard Sanders (Vt.) - are liberals who worry about cutting too much.

"I have no problem making intelligent, judicious cuts," Sanders said. But, he added, "the road to fiscal responsibility has got to include raising revenue."

Some congressional leaders expressed frustration that short-term funding measures have become routine in recent years.

"It is hard to believe we've reached that point in Washington where we are going to fund our United States government two weeks at a time," said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "We've reached a point now where things are so political and so complex that we have to sit down for these mega-meetings to try to put it all on the table and resolve it."

Senate Democrats are not willing to accept another short-term funding bill, Durbin said. "We're going to draw a line here. This is not the way to govern. It doesn't serve the country and, unfortunately, it imperils the economy."

For Republicans, especially the 87 freshmen in the GOP-led House, the expiring spending bill represented an opportunity to begin delivering on a campaign promise to shrink the federal government. But the GOP is targeting only domestic discretionary spending - less than a fifth of the overall budget - and the cuts would barely dent the deficit.

Nor does the current debate address another fundamental problem: the fact that a budget process designed to establish priorities, cut what doesn't work and restructure programs to operate with maximum efficiency has devolved into one of the most partisan rituals on Capitol Hill.

"We need something new, and everyone recognizes it, but all of it is caught up in a political contest between Democrats and Republicans," said Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Congress established a budget process in the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, a law spearheaded by Republicans concerned about rising government expenditures. But over time, lawmakers came to believe that they had given away too much authority to the White House. The Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse, but by the early 1970s, President Richard M. Nixon was making regular use of a practice called impoundment, refusing to spend money appropriated by Congress as a way of ending programs he didn't like.

The response from Capitol Hill was the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which created the House and Senate budget committees and set forth many of the rules that govern the process today. One of the signal reforms was the creation of the congressional budget resolution, a blueprint that binds lawmakers to restrain spending and raise revenues, either to produce a balanced budget or to hit a deficit target.

But even that process has broken down, especially in election years; Congress has passed a budget resolution in an election year only once in the past decade, in 2008.

Speaking on the House floor, Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) urged his colleagues to work through their differences. "We must move forward quickly in regular order, passing bills on time in an open and transparent fashion, to avoid these budget uncertainties in the future."

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