President Obama has been ramping up his attacks on fractious congressional Republicans in recent days, accusing them of pushing the country toward a government shutdown that would damage the U.S. economy.
On Thursday, with 13 days left in the fiscal year, the president met at the White House with Democratic congressional leaders — Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) — signaling that the Democrats were taking the shutdown possibility seriously even as they reveled in the GOP’s dysfunction.
Reid and Pelosi met with Obama for about 90 minutes to prepare for negotiations. They said they are willing to back a continuing resolution to keep the government open, but insisted that such a stopgap measure be a short-term one and include the same size increases for military and non-military spending.
They said that they will also demand that it not include any language about ideological issues, such as funding for Planned Parenthood.
“The three of us agree that we want a short-term [resolution],” Reid said after the meeting. “We want to make sure that the riders are off that. We want to make sure we have equal money for defense and non-defense.”
Pelosi said the emphasis now is on reaching a deal quickly.
“We’re optimistic; we want to be cooperative,” Pelosi said. “We want to negotiate in good faith to see that effectively done in a timely fashion.”
But with seven working days left on the legislative calendar, GOP feuding so far has prevented any real negotiation on a funding package.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that congressional Republicans had “shown no interest” in talks with congressional Democrats and accused them of “irresponsible gamesmanship.”
Ahead of the White House meeting, Pelosi told reporters that she and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had not begun talks: “I spoke with Speaker Boehner about when we would speak about this,” she said. The lack of communication sets up a replay of the 2013 showdown that led to a 16-day shutdown.
This year’s dynamics are driven by an internal GOP feud in the House, in which a group of hard-line conservatives promises mutiny against Boehner if they perceive any capitulation in his dealings with the Democrats.
On Thursday, Boehner’s top deputy, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), was forced to address the acrimony within the GOP caucus. He told reporters that the conservatives who wanted to oust Boehner were distracting and dividing Republicans.
The danger to Boehner lies in the insistence of some in his party that he not allow any funding package for the federal government if it includes funding for Planned Parenthood, a provider of health services to women, which recently has been embroiled in controversy over the harvesting of fetal tissue.
Some have suggested that they will seek to remove Boehner from the speakership if he concedes on the Planned Parenthood funding. McCarthy, widely seen as the only viable replacement for Boehner among the bitterly divided Republicans, said any talk of removing the speaker would hurt the party.
“If we deal in this type of debate, we only weaken ourselves from what we want to achieve,” McCarthy said as Boehner and other top leaders stood next to him.
Democrats are hoping to take advantage of the disarray, but they know that they have a tricky hand to play when Obama gets involved.
Some members of Congress fear that although vigorous attacks from the White House may be good politics for Democrats, they could increase the likelihood of a shutdown by roiling Republicans as they struggle to forge a consensus in their ranks.
Democrats have serious funding priorities that they would like to see met. They are pressing for an infrastructure spending program, tax credits for middle-class families, higher tax rates on capital gains and greater domestic spending. Republicans favor more military spending and cuts in nonmilitary expenditures, and they insist that a budget should eliminate funding for the president’s health-care law and for Planned Parenthood.
The White House has proposed raising the tax on carried interest, a form of remuneration that private equity, real estate and hedge fund managers can treat as capital gains instead of regular income, which is taxed at a higher rate.
Republicans have dismissed the idea of increasing taxes on investment income to help pay for spending increases. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said Thursday that he would be open to considering a change, but only in the context of broader tax reform.
“Probably on a true tax reform basis, you’d be able to do that,” Hatch said. “I don’t think we’d be able to do that on spending.”
That proposal would raise only about $15 billion of the approximately $50 billion that Democrats need to fund the spending increase that was included in the 2016 White House budget. Another option would be to borrow some of the approximately $46 billion in funding that the Senate approved to help pay for increased spending in the Highway Trust Fund.
The White House has left the door open for a short-term continuing resolution. Reid told reporters Wednesday that such a deal would need to quickly lead to negotiations on a long-term spending agreement.
He declined to specify any opening terms for talks beyond insisting that an eventual deal should increase domestic spending at the same rate as defense spending, thereby busting the sequester caps.
Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have acknowledged that negotiations on a long-term budget solution will be necessary. The House is expected to lead the way on negotiations, but Boehner’s plans have been stymied by a growing revolt in his party.
At least 31 of the most conservative House members have signed a letter vowing to block any spending bill that includes funding for Planned Parenthood.
One key issue is whether the time has come to discard automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, a mechanism designed to coerce Congress and the administration to reach a budget agreement to avoid the imposition of those harsh and arbitrary cuts. Republicans are more sympathetic to busting the limits for military spending, whereas Obama favors ending them for domestic spending as well.
“Sequestration was never intended to take effect: rather, it was supposed to threaten such drastic cuts to both defense and non-defense funding that policymakers would be motivated to come to the table and reduce the deficit through smart, balanced reforms,” the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said in a letter to defense appropriators in the Senate. “The Republican framework would bring base discretionary funding for both non-defense and defense to the lowest real [inflation-adjusted] levels in a decade.”
But many Republicans in Congress started the year promising to use the limits to rein in spending. The House passed six deep-cutting spending bills that included policy provisions that would slash some of Obama’s biggest priorities, including defunding the Affordable Care Act and denying funding for executive action on immigration.
Even as leaders acknowledge that negotiations are inevitable, many rank-and-file Republicans say that they will not give up on the cuts.
On Tuesday, more than
170 House conservatives released a hard-line budget proposal that would leave all of the spending cuts intact.
The list of issues between the White House and congressional appropriators is long. The OMB has issued seven “statements of administration policy” — six in the House and one in the Senate — that map out reasons the president might veto current spending proposals. Many of the reasons are unrelated to spending.
The OMB said that the Senate’s defense appropriations bill wrongly uses overseas contingency money meant for war costs to pay for base requirements and “to circumvent budget caps” without explicitly lifting the caps. It also took issue with various weapons acquisition plans.
But the agency also objected to a provision in the measure that would place “unwarranted restrictions” on the administration’s plans to move detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States and ultimately close the military prison.
The White House budget office also said that Obama would veto the spending bill for the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and related agencies because it would reduce funding for the EPA. The bill also would enshrine GOP priorities, prohibiting the EPA from using money to implement the Clean Power Plan and barring the Interior Department from implementing new rules on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, designed to minimize methane leaks.
The bill for Commerce Department, Justice Department and science spending includes “unrelated language regarding Cuban foreign policy” and would prohibit exports to the Cuban military or intelligence services. It also would not fully fund a request for body cameras for police, a measure the administration proposed in response to alleged incidents of excessive force used by officers.
In congressional testimony over the summer, Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, said that “compared with the president’s budget for Head Start, the House bill would serve 140,000 fewer preschoolers or fail to extend the Head Start schedule to provide full-day and full-year preschool for 570,000 children.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.