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A bit of progress on budget talks, some say

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators raced against the clock Wednesday to reach a deal to fund the government for the rest of the year.

As Democrats and Republicans continued to bicker publicly over who is responsible for the weeks-long stalemate, senior aides to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appeared to make progress in private talks, raising hopes for at least the broad outlines of a pact by week's end.

President Barack Obama met at the White House Wednesday night with Boehner and Reid. The meeting, called by Obama, underscored the drama in the nation's capital as the White House and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill spent the day pointing fingers at each other in advance of a possible government shutdown at midnight Friday.

The meeting was called after a day of pointed sparring between Democrats and Republicans, with Boehner accusing Obama of failing to lead on the budget, while the president said Republicans had injected politics into the negotiations.

"I do not want to see Washington politics stand in the way of America's progress," he said.

The meeting came at the end of a day in which some lawmakers and aides reported signs of progress in confidential negotiations between the House and Senate.

"There's been a direct negotiation — things put on the table that had not been discussed before, and I think we're moving towards closure," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 3 Senate Democrat.

Even if they do reach an agreement, both sides acknowledged that it may be all but impossible for the bill to make its way through the House and Senate before midnight on Friday, when Washington will effectively run out of money and the government is set to shut down.

To keep that from happening, House and Senate leaders would have to agree to yet another stopgap resolution.

At a meeting with fellow Republicans, Boehner announced that he will bring a one-week spending resolution to the House floor for a vote today. It calls for $12 billion in cuts and would fund the Pentagon for the rest of the year. Republicans rallied around the idea. The teary-eyed speaker received a standing ovation from GOP members, lawmakers said.

Even the most conservative lawmakers, led by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., vowed to support what they called a "troop funding" measure, and Boehner's closest allies grew confident that the good spirits would carry over to a compromise plan on a full-year measure, particularly after the party's release Tuesday of a 2012 budget proposal designed to save trillions, not billions, of dollars.

"I think there's a transformational moment here recognizing that big gains come with the budget which we're marking up, and I think that's shifted an attitude to say it's time to move beyond $10 billion, $11 billion, $3 billion, $60 billion, whatever. We've got trillions we need to deal with to get this country on firm footing," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

Senate Democrats dismissed Boehner's one-week proposal, which also contains an unrelated provision to ban federal and local government funding for abortions in the District of Columbia, as a political maneuver: Democrats will certainly vote against it, allowing the GOP to blame them if the government shuts down.

"We've been more than reasonable, more than fair," Reid said Wednesday evening on the Senate floor. He suggested that it was Boehner who was afraid to cut a deal.

"All they would have to do is say yes," Reid said.

"You want everybody to act like adults, quit playing games, realize that it's not just my way or the highway," Obama said Wednesday afternoon in Fairless Hills, Pa., outside Philadelphia. "How many folks are married here? When was the last time you just got your way? I mean, that's not how it works."

Some members of the most critical bloc of conservative Republicans — the 87 freshmen — have signaled that they might be willing to compromise on a 2011 spending plan in order to move on to bigger issues, including the 2012 budget proposal that GOP House leaders unveiled Tuesday. A vote on that bill could come next week, but Boehner first wants to dispose of the dispute over this year's funding plan.

While a potentially decisive group of Democrats appears willing to support the emerging 2011 spending plan, Boehner has sought to draw as much support as possible from within his own caucus. He spent the past week denying claims from Vice President Joe Biden and Reid that he had agreed to $33 billion in cuts. Instead, he floated $40 billion as an acceptable number.

A shutdown looms as the economy is still climbing out of the doldrums and financially strapped states have less ability to fill in for shortfalls in federal funding.

As a separate branch of government, Congress has its own shutdown plan, which defines an "essential" employee as someone who helps lawmakers "perform their constitutional duties." That definition will include the elevator operators in the Senate, but not employees at the house staff gym. It also will ensure there will be plenty of aides around Capitol Hill to help lawmakers wage the battle that is holding up the spending bill.

"They're just toying with the lives of federal employees," said Daniel Sobien, a weather forecaster in Tampa and president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, who described himself as angry that some Republicans are calling for a shutdown.

Like Sobien, 85 percent of the nearly 2 million federal workers live outside the Washington, D.C., area, and often in communities where federal prisons, military bases, hospitals and park anchor the local economy.

If a shutdown does come, and lasts only a few days, most in the military would receive their full paychecks April 15, officials said. But if a shutdown lasted beyond the mid-April pay period, they would get roughly half of their check on April 15 and have to wait until the next pay period for the rest.

While the political wheels turned, hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the Capitol calling for budget cuts and a shutdown if necessary to get them.

"Shut the sucker down," one yelled, and the crowd repeatedly chanted, "Shut it down."

Information from the Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

A bit of progress on budget talks, some say 04/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 12:57am]
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