Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday he will offer a 30-day continuing resolution that freezes spending at current levels and will dispatch his top aide to negotiate with the office of House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, on an agreement to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year.
The 30-day CR is expected to be rejected by House and Senate Republicans, leaving in place the threat of a government shutdown after March 4, when the current CR expires. But the talks still could create an opening for House Republicans and Senate Democrats, who thus far have ignored or attacked each other.
"Half of this is about opening a channel," Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said.
Reid said he asked his chief of staff, David Krone, to start talks with Boehner's top aide, Barry Jackson, "to craft a long-term continuing resolution that cuts waste and excess, while protecting the initiatives that keep us safe, put Americans back to work and keep our economy on the right track."
Reid said he has asked Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, to prepare a CR that the majority leader will take to the floor. Reid said the bill will be "clean," with no unrelated legislation or riders attached.
The bill would continue spending at current levels, a step Reid called a budget cut because it puts spending below the level President Obama proposed last year.
Reid and Democrats are aware that Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will reject a short-term CR without more extensive cuts.
In a statement Tuesday, McConnell ripped the idea of a spending freeze, calling it "unacceptable."
Boehner also rejected the 30-day freeze in a statement on Tuesday, saying the House will pass its own short-term CR with spending cuts if the Senate does not take up the long-term CR the House passed.
"The House has passed legislation to keep the government running until October while cutting spending. If Senator Reid refuses to bring it to a vote, then the House will pass a short-term spending bill-one that also cuts spending," Boehner said in a statement. "Senate Democratic Leaders are insisting on a status quo that has left us with a mountain of debt and a stalled economy with unemployment near 10 percent."
Democrats and Republicans are about $60 billion apart in proposed spending for the rest of the year, or about $5 billion in a 30-day period. Democratic aides said the staff talks between Reid and Boehner's office could also address a deal on a short-term CR to avert a shutdown.
Reid's Tuesday offer also appears to be an effort to put the onus for avoiding a shutdown on the GOP.
"Speaker Boehner should stop drawing lines in the sand, and come to the table to find a responsible path forward that cuts government spending while keeping our communities safe and our economy growing," Reid said. "It would be the height of irresponsibility to shut down the government without any negotiations, as Republicans are threatening to do."
But House Republican leaders are looking to head him off with that line of attack. In a statement, House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said that "a government shutdown is not an acceptable outcome, and I again call upon Leader Reid to commit take that threat off the table and find areas to actually cut spending from the levels we are currently operating at."
It remains unclear, however, how much ability Boehner has to line up his caucus behind any spending deal that cuts less than the House CR that was passed over the weekend.
Indeed, some House Republicans are exerting pressure from the other direction. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who voted against the CR, Tuesday said the measure "didn't go far enough."