WASHINGTON — With the federal government on the verge of a shutdown, congressional leaders and the White House engaged in increasingly tense budget brinksmanship on Thursday as the fight shifted from cuts to disputes over policy issues like environmental regulations and abortion.
Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, met with President Barack Obama at the White House for a second and third time in less than 24 hours after sparring openly about what was at the heart of the impasse. Absent any agreement by today, Reid said as he left the White House, lawmakers "have to look forward to the bad day tomorrow, which is government shutdown."
Federal agencies prepared to furlough employees and cut off most services. Workers, contractors and consumers scrambled to understand how a shutdown would affect them, and Democrats warned of harm to the economy. The two parties also maneuvered to assign blame in the event that no deal could be reached, and neither side was certain that it could predict the political repercussions of a shutdown.
The policy disputes involved a handful of provisions. One would greatly limit financing for Planned Parenthood and other family-planning providers — in the United States and overseas — and prevent the District of Columbia from using its own tax dollars to help poor women pay for abortions.
Also at issue were measures that would restrict the regulatory powers of the Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite target of Republicans since they took over the House this year, by preventing the agency from enforcing significant portions of the Clean Air Act and regulating carbon emissions.
The parties continued to spar over spending levels as well, although they were not that far apart in the context of a $3.5 trillion federal budget. The New York Times reported, citing congressional officials, that Boehner had proposed $39 billion in cuts to the current year's budget on Wednesday after his bid for $40 billion was rejected the day before. Democrats took the new offer under review.
Top budget staff, after working through the night, returned Thursday morning with a proposed $34.5 billion in cuts, with $3 billion of that to come from the Pentagon. Democrats said they believed that plan put the two sides close to an agreement, with just a few billion dollars separating them.
Democrats said Boehner insisted that any deal also include some of the so-called policy riders, which they argued injected conservative ideology into what should be a numbers battle.
"This is no longer about the budget deficit," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. "It's about bumper stickers."
Boehner rejected assertions by the top Democrats that the policy divide was all that was holding up a deal.
"There are a number of issues that are on the table, and any attempt to try to narrow this down to one or two just would not be accurate," Boehner said.
Despite Obama's threat to veto the measure, the House passed a Republican plan to keep federal agencies open another week, to cut $12 billion in spending and to provide the Pentagon with money through Sept. 30. Republicans hoped the legislation, which passed 247 to 181, would show that they had made a serious effort to avert a shutdown and leave Senate Democrats and the administration facing criticism for cutting off money to members of the military serving overseas.
Why not at least vote to support the troops, asked Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores. "They're not doing their job," he said of Democrats. "What they're doing — they're running the 2012 elections on the backs of the military."
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, dismissed the stopgap bill and said a bipartisan deal on funding the government for the rest of this fiscal year remained in reach.
"We have been negotiating in good faith, and we have closed the gap," Carney said. "... The people expect us to get the deal done."
With the prospect that much of the government would cease to operate after midnight tonight, preparations for a shutdown began in earnest.
Federal agencies and congressional offices began telling workers who would be considered essential — and should come to work — and who should stay home. On Capitol Hill, staff members who were not deemed essential were warned that they could face sanctions if they tried to do any work. Lawmakers and top aides were briefed on the finer points of a shutdown, some shaking their heads in dismay as they left the meetings.
The fight over fiscal 2011 is the opening salvo in what's likely to be a yearlong political confrontation over spending. Republicans won control of the House last year with a pledge to slash the size of government, and next week they plan to vote on a package that would cut $6.2 trillion from anticipated spending over the next 10 years.
Lawmakers from both parties urged a deal to resolve the current year's stalemate quickly so that they can concentrate on the longer term.