Senate Democratic leaders said on Tuesday they were willing to give ground on a bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, but a shutdown remained possible since that deal will likely not be cut before March 4, when the current continuing resolution expires.
As evidence of what they say is their willingness to compromise, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Chairman Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said they will consider reducing spending below current levels set under a continuing resolution passed in December.
"We'll go beyond the 2010 level and cut greater than $41 billion," Schumer said in a conference call. Democrats argue that keeping spending at current levels represents a $41 billion cut from spending levels proposed by President Obama in 2010.
Reid and Schumer last week touted an agreement among Democrats to freeze spending as a significant step. Putting additional cuts on the table represents a concession following House passage on Saturday of a CR that cuts about $60 billion from current spending levels.
Reid also said on Tuesday that his chief of staff, David Krone, will start talks with Barry Jackson, chief of staff to House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, on a CR for the rest of the year. He said the talks would represent the first between Senate Democrats and House Republicans on the budget. He said he met last week with Boehner but described Boehner as unwilling to negotiate.
"We are saying without preconditions, we want to sit down and negotiate a one-year CR," Reid said. "We can't do it through the press."
But a long-term deal is unlikely before March 4, when the current CR expires. Reid is planning to bring to the floor next week a 30-day CR freezing spending at current levels.
That proposal was rejected as inadequate by House GOP leaders and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Boehner said on Tuesday that the House will pass its own short-term CR with spending cuts in response to Senate Democrats' plan to ignore the House-passed CR.
That sets up a possible stalemate by the end of next week.
The challenge for Reid and Boehner is cutting a deal on a level of spending in a short-term bill that can win enough support from their caucuses to pass quickly before the current CR expires.
Both parties appear to believe they can strengthen their bargaining position by putting responsibility for the shutdown on the other party. Both sides insisted on Tuesday they want to pass a short-term CR to allow talks, but that the other side's refusal to bend is complicating a deal.
Meanwhile, Republicans worked to pressure Democrats running for reelection in 2012. The National Republican Senatorial Committee pushed Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to state their positions on the House and Senate proposals.
A McConnell spokesman suggested some "Democrats have expressed concern about locking in the status quo."
Meanwhile, one potential area of agreement is defense spending. Appropriations staffers who work on defense have been told to remain available in coming weeks, a suggestion that appropriators could try to move a stand-alone Defense appropriations measure for the rest of the fiscal year.