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Congressional leaders show few signs of compromise as budget showdown looms

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; A02

Congressional leaders showed few signs of compromise in their ongoing budget battle Sunday, with Republican and Democratic leaders publicly accusing one another of not being serious about crafting a responsible federal spending plan quickly.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said President Obama and congressional Democrats do not appear willing to make the deep cuts necessary to control the country's deficit spending. McConnell, who has met privately with White House leaders and Vice President Biden in recent days and spoke Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation," said he is "not optimistic" about the two sides tackling major budget matters, including expensive entitlement programs.

Meanwhile, Democrats accused the Republican-controlled House of proposing "reckless" cuts in a small sliver of the budget - slashing deeply into domestic discretionary programs for education and energy research - but leaving intact a much larger portion of the budget, including defense spending.

"I think it's an ideological, extremist, reckless statement," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said of the House proposal earlier on "Face the Nation." "If that were to be in fact put in place, it would contribute to the reversal of our recovery. It might even destroy our recovery."

The clock is ticking, and the gap between the two sides is still wide.

Just a few days ago, lawmakers averted a government shutdown and bought more time for negotiation. As the government's authority to spend taxpayer funds was about to expire Friday, Obama signed a measure last week to fund the government for two more weeks, until March 18. So far, Republicans proposed $61 billion in cuts from current spending levels while Democrats have proposed an estimated $10.5 billion in cuts.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) suggested on a "Fox News Sunday" appearance that Democrats were unwilling to go any further than what they have offered. He said the Democratic proposal on discretionary spending cuts has been pushed "to the limit."

Lawmakers appeared far less sanguine about a deal than the White House. On Saturday, Obama said he was willing to make further spending cuts, and on Sunday, White House chief of staff William M. Daley said he was "optimistic that there will not be a shutdown."

McConnell said he thought the White House was "in denial" about the long-term unfunded debts the country is racking up in entitlement programs such as Social Security, combined with the $1.6 trillion deficit the country is running this year. He said that with a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate, now is a perfect political moment for both sides to tackle a growing fiscal problem.

When asked if he thought Obama was serious about brokering a deal, McConnell said: "No, I don't. . . . I was hopeful that we would step up to the plate here, if you will, and use this divided-government opportunity to do something big about our long-term problem. What I don't see now is any willingness to do anything that's difficult."

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