WASHINGTON — The prospect of a government shutdown loomed larger on Capitol Hill on Thursday when Republican leaders ruled out the easiest path around a budget impasse and Democrats accused them of playing a dangerous game of chicken.
Tensions over funding the government for the rest of this year escalated as House Republicans crept closer to approval of a massive package of spending cuts to social services, environmental programs, foreign aid and research.
The package, amounting to more than $61 billion, is five times larger than any previous discretionary budget reduction proposed in the House, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Thursday, and makes good on a Republican campaign promise to make swift and substantial cuts to spending.
But the plan is unlikely to get far when it moves to the Democratic-led Senate. It also has been rejected by the Obama administration as potentially harmful to the frail economic recovery.
The resulting stalemate comes with a firm deadline: Current funding for the government expires on March 4.
With the House still debating the GOP package, Democrats had widely expected Republican leaders to agree to temporarily extend current spending levels, giving both sides more time to negotiate. But Boehner on Thursday rejected that approach outright, saying he would not allow a stopgap measure that did not include cuts.
"When we say we're going to cut spending, read my lips: We're going to cut spending," he told reporters.
Boehner's blunt declaration immediately turned up the heat on the spending talks and appeared to derail what many had seen as the obvious way to buy time.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested it was evidence that Boehner "can't control the votes in his caucus" and had resorted to "threats" of a shutdown.
"It's not permissible. We will not stand for that," Reid said.
Democrats argued that a resolution extending the budget at current levels would already include spending reductions. Roughly $41 billion in cuts was included when the current spending plan was put into place by the last Congress.
That argument is unlikely to placate the most ardent budget hawks in the Republican House, who already have successfully pushed their leadership to dig deeper into nondefense spending. These lawmakers, many of them freshmen, have shown a near-singular focus on shrinking the size of the government and share an uncompromising ethos.
Many took the $61 billion offered in the GOP bill as a mere starting point and have proposed hundreds of amendments to further reduce spending.
Debate on those amendments went past 3 a.m. Thursday morning and crept forward at a laborious pace all day. Lawmakers late Thursday were braced to work well into the night without a scheduled vote in sight.
By late Thursday afternoon, the Washington Post, citing Republican aides, reported that there was still so much debate on pending amendments, particularly from many of the 87 freshmen who propelled Republicans to the majority, that a vote on final passage would come today. They suggested the vote could come any time from lunchtime to midnight.
The Senate will not take up its version until the first week of March.
With Congress out of session next week, legislators would have only a few days in early March to reconcile their vast differences.
In early votes, the House voted to take $20 million out of the National Endowment for the Arts and to cut the remaining $15 million out of a trust fund for the Presidio historic site in San Francisco.
The House also approved an amendment aimed at blocking so-called net neutrality rules. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., bars the use of funds to enforce Federal Communication Commission rules pertaining to Internet regulation.
Other measures were rejected, however, including a proposal to cut $233 million from the National Labor Relations Board and another to cut funding for Amtrak by $447 million.
Still, Republicans in the House said they felt the momentum was with the budget cutters and that a Senate proposal would have to include substantial reductions to win a majority in the House.
"I don't see the stomach here to cave in," said seven-term Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb.
Both sides have sought to use the possibility of a government shutdown as leverage in the budget fight.
Mindful of the political blowback from a 1995 government shutdown, Democrats have pre-emptively tried to blame the GOP-led House for the escalating tensions, saying Republicans have recklessly pursued cuts at the urging of the tea party-aligned members of the party.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., called on Republicans to "take the government shutdown option off the table" as she introduced legislation to cut off lawmakers' paychecks if the shutdown occurs.
Republicans answered by accusing Democrats of "rooting for a shutdown" instead of working toward a solution that would reduce the deficit.
Information from the Tribune Washington Bureau and the Washington Post was used in this report.