As the budget stalemate lingered, President Obama reached out Saturday to House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, urging them to reach a resolution that would avoid a government shutdown, the White House said.
In separate phone calls, the president told Boehner (R-Ohio) and Reid (D-Nev.) that a closure would be harmful "to our economic recovery," according to a description of the conversation released by the White House.
The announcement of the president's direct intervention marked a slight shift in White House strategy in the fight over a plan to fund the government for the rest of 2011. Until now, Vice President Joe Biden and budget director Jacob Lew had taken the public lead on attempting to broker a deal between House Republicans and Senate Democrats, while the president kept more distance from the fray.
But the window in which to reach a deal before a disruption in government operations is closing quickly. The current spending plan expires on Friday, giving leaders just a few days to agree on and pass a deal or convince the rank and file to pass another stopgap measure while talks continue.
The president said he was encouraged by an agreement to reduce spending by roughly $73 billion from his proposed budget — $33 billion from current spending levels. Democrats have repeatedly cited that number, while Republicans say no such deal has been made.
"The speaker reminded the president that there is no deal or agreement on a final number, and he will continue to push for the largest possible spending cuts," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Saturday.
Boehner has been careful not to appear to be jumping too quickly into deal-making mode after an election in which many Republicans railed against Washington's backroom maneuvers and split-the-baby approach.
If a compromise is reached, he faces a challenge in selling it to his large and strong-willed conference, particularly the freshman class, which has made the fight against deficit spending its top priority. Freshmen make up more than a third of the Republicans in the House. Several have said they would not vote for the compromise proposal, although they have suggested they are willing to move away from the $61 billion in cuts they have been pushing.
Aside from selling the deal, Boehner may also have to ask his members to buy him more time. With talks dragging on, it has become increasingly likely that another short-term measure may be needed to fund the government. The speaker lost the support of more than 50 Republicans on the last short-term spending bill and was dependent on Democrats for passage.
Negotiations continued Saturday on the still-tentative $33-billion compromise. Administration and congressional staff members were working on the details of department cuts, Democrats said.
Among the unresolved and thorny issues was the fate of several policy proposals House Republicans had attached their spending bill, which passed the chamber in February but died in the Senate last month. Those measures include defunding the new healthcare law and Planned Parenthood, as well as measures aimed at hobbling environmental regulation.
The president appeared to address those policy riders during his phone call with Boehner on Saturday. "He made clear that we continue to oppose efforts to use this process to further an ideological agenda on issues that have nothing at all to do with reducing spending or reducing the deficit," the White House said.
Both Boehner and Obama cited the fragile economy to bolster their positions. Obama said he was opposed to cuts that would "undermine our economic growth," while Boehner argued that government spending was holding employers back.
"Washington's inability to get spending under control is creating uncertainty for our job creators," Boehner said, delivering the Republican weekly address. "It's discouraging investment in small businesses and eroding confidence in our economy. To put it simply, the spending binge in Washington is holding our country back and keeping our economy from creating jobs."