Leaving a meeting with Senate Democratic leaders, Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday evening that House and Senate negotiators had reached a partial agreement and were now "working off the same number," after the Appropriations chairmen in both chambers had agreed on $73 billion in total cuts from the spending levels proposed in President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget proposal-or $33 billion from current levels. Republicans had pledged to cut $100 billion from Obama's fiscal 2011 budget.
The specific cuts that will make up that $73 billion number are still to be decided and Biden stopped short of declaring a deal, saying there was much left to negotiate.
The sides must also reach a deal on policy riders attached to the bill. The talks relate not only to a level of spending cuts but to "what they will swallow and what we will swallow in terms of riders," Biden said. "There [are] some things we are just not going to do in terms of riders. Even if you swallow everything else. We're just not going to do it."
"There's not a deal until there's a whole deal," Biden said. "So the composition of the $73 [billion] makes a big difference."
Still, the progress reported Wednesday night appears to be the result of a grown-up discipline suddenly taking hold of the process, despite the continuing public acrimony and heated rhetoric from the extremes of both parties.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Michael Steel, did not specifically dispute Biden's assertion that the sides are working off the same number but said, "There is no deal until everything is settled -- spending cuts and policy restrictions."
Steel added: "The vice president simply hasn't been at the table."
And a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Brad Dayspring, said "Eric isn't in the room and has no knowledge of that [number]; to the contrary, he's been told there is no deal."
After accusing Boehner of abandoning serious talks earlier this week, Democrats said Boehner aides had met with the staff of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Tuesday night in a bargaining session.
Also Wednesday, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., confirmed that he has been talking to Blue Dog Democrats, in what could be a sign that House GOP leaders are considering scenarios in which passage of a spending deal might be dependent on House Democratic votes.
House Republicans to this point have been reluctant to discuss the talks. However, they do acknowledge that negotiations have been ongoing and will continue.
Lawmakers have until midnight April 8 to either come to an agreement on funding for the rest of the fiscal year, or a short-term extension to allow a deal to be considered and passed by Congress. Failure to do so would lead to a government shutdown.
"I think we will work it out," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who is chairman of the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. "I don't think a majority on either side of the aisle think that a government shutdown is in their best interest or in the country's best interest."
Simpson noted that he believes momentum has picked up on negotiations. He also indicated that prospects of an agreement could lead House GOP leaders to change their mind about taking up a bill Friday to re-assert the House GOP's commitment to cutting $61 billion from current spending levels. The House passed a similar bill last month to fund the remainder of the fiscal year and cut $61 billion from current spending levels.
Senate Democrats have said that they have a plan on the bargaining table, backed by the White House, to cap spending at $1.058 trillion, which is a $31 billion cut from current levels and a $70 billion cut from Obama's fiscal 2011 budget request. The $70 billion proposal includes $51 billion in cuts from the Democrats' previous proposal, plus $20 billion in new cuts.
They assert that the sides were at one point just $6 billion apart, with Republicans willing to cap discretionary spending at $1.052 trillion, which translates to a $37 billion cut from fiscal 2010, and a $76 billion cut from Obama's fiscal 2011 budget proposal.
But agreement on a top line spending figure is also contingent on how many policy riders, which limit spending in the bill, will be included in the final deal.
The bill passed by the House last month included several to prevent implementation of the health care reform law, stripping funding for Planned Parenthood, and prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from spending funds to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, all of which Senate Democrats oppose. But they are under discussion, Democrats have said.
As talks intensify, House GOP leaders also appear to be flirting with the possibility that they will likely need Democrats to pass a compromise. The vote on the last temporary spending extension saw 54 Republicans break with their leadership and oppose the continuing resolution, which passed with the help of 85 Democrats.
But McCarthy stressed that his discussions with Democrats have been about longer-term budget issues. "The Blue Dogs had asked to meet with me when I got elected majority whip," McCarthy said of his talks with the group. "I want to talk [with] the Blue Dogs, if they are serious about saving these entitlements … and the budget going forward … that's what our conversations were about."
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats and House Republicans have been fighting a public relations war over the negotiations.
For Senate Democrats, that has entailed Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Chairman Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democratic surrogates releasing information on talks trying to depict GOP leaders as caving to tea party pressure even as negotiators representing Reid attempt to convince Boehner aides to cut a deal that rejects that course.
Cantor has been fighting back for the GOP against Schumer's assertions. But the balancing act appears tougher for Boehner and his allies. Republicans are particularly reluctant to back down on spending cuts with a high profile tea party rally scheduled Thursday near the Capitol, which is designed to keep the pressure on lawmakers to hold the line.
Major Garrett contributed to this report.