Some progress cited in federal budget talks

As partisan rancor intensified on the edge of a threatened government shutdown, President Obama summoned congressional leaders back to the White House on Wednesday, but the late-night session failed to break a stalemate over Republican demands for deep budget cuts.

Even as the public bickering continued, there was progress behind the scenes on details of the spending reductions, and negotiators planned to work through the night. But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), juggling his own political pragmatism with the conservative convictions of the GOP majority, has refused to yield to a public compromise with Democrats.

“We do have some honest differences,” Boehner said as he emerged from the two-hour meeting with Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid and Boehner, in a rare moment, stood side by side outside the White House and pledged to keep working. Reid said he believed the meeting “narrowed the issues,” and Boehner said there had been “some progress” in reaching a deal to fund the government for the remaining six months of the 2011 fiscal year.


But Obama said additional sessions may be needed, and added that a failure of talks, leading to a government shutdown after midnight Friday, would adversely affect the country.

“I remain confident that if we’re serious about getting something done, we should be able to complete the deal and get it passed and avert a shutdown,” Obama said. “But it’s going to require a sufficient sense of urgency from all parties involved.”

Conservatives are demanding deeper spending cuts as well as sweeping policy changes in order to reach a deal.

The emotional toll of the protracted debate had become apparent earlier in the day when Boehner choked up at a closed-door meeting of Republicans over the support he received for his hard-line stance.


Obama invited Boehner and Reid for a second round of White House talks after Boehner announced that the House would defy Obama and vote Thursday on another stopgap measure to fund the government through next week.

For nearly a week, talks have focused on a $33-billion package of domestic program cuts as part of a measure to fund the government for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

That compromise is halfway between cuts sought by Republicans in a House-passed bill in February and a spending freeze Democrats initially proposed. The $33-billion figure also is the level of cuts that House leaders first proposed when unveiling a spending package in February.

But under pressure from his conservative flank, including the House freshmen who are staging nearly daily protests on the steps of the Senate, Boehner has repeatedly said he never made that agreement.


He threw talks into a tailspin this week by asking for $40 billion in cuts.

“The Republican leadership has the ‘tea party’ screaming so loudly in its right ear that it can’t hear what the vast majority of the country demands,” Reid said Wednesday. “The biggest gap in these negotiations isn’t between Republicans and Democrats. It’s between Republicans and Republicans.”

Democratic senators appealed Wednesday to Boehner’s pragmatic side.

“We know you understand the importance of this issue and share our desire to avoid shocks to our fragile economy,” a group of 16 senators wrote to the House speaker.


Negotiations continued to focus Wednesday on the size of the package, as well as the types of cuts being made.

Obama called both Boehner and Reid in the morning in talks that were characterized as brief updates.

But differences remain. Republicans want to make cuts that permanently reduce targeted programs. Democrats are seeking cuts elsewhere — in agricultural subsidies, one-time savings and surplus accounts.

At the same time, negotiators are divided over dozens of GOP policy priorities that are part of the budget debate, including efforts to defund the nation’s new healthcare law and Planned Parenthood and gut the Environmental Protection Agency. All are nonstarters for Democrats.


Yet, Democrats could give on other GOP policy provisions. Republicans also want to cut federal arts programs and loosen firearms restrictions.

Meanwhile, public opinion continues to shift. New poll results Wednesday showed voters would place more blame on Republicans than on congressional Democrats or the president for a government disruption.

Veteran GOP lawmakers have appealed to conservative counterparts to avoid a shutdown. But tea party protesters gathered on the Capitol lawn Wednesday, shouting, “Shut it down!”

“It’s time to pick a fight,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), at the event sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a group with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers.


Paul West in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.