Talks between the House Republicans and administration are accelerating as both sides push for a deal in the next two weeks to avert a government shutdown.
The negotiations are under way on several levels. Conversations between Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew and House Appropriations Republican staff have begun. Democratic aides said those talks are an offshoot of existing negotiations involving leadership staff from both chambers that helped produce a deal last week on a three-week continuing resolution. Talks between House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and President Obama or a senior designee are set to begin as soon as this week, a senior GOP source said.
The efforts come with the Senate likely to pass the three-week continuing resolution including about $6 billion in spending cuts on Thursday, according to leadership aides. The increased pace reflects the belief at the White House and among congressional eaders that a deal must be struck in March to give both chambers time to act on a negotiated bill before the two-week Easter recess. If the three-week CR is passed by the Senate, as expected, Congress will have until April 8 to reach a compromise.
The senior GOP source said the deal will be cut by Boehner and Obama, written by the House Appropriations Republicans, and effectively presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis to Senate Democrats, who would be expected to swallow it.
Democratic leadership aides say they are confident that Lew will not give House Republicans their preferred level of cuts. Lew's "interests pretty much align with ours," said an aide, who insisted that a deal between the White House and Boehner would not resemble last year's tax deal, which the White House cut with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., with limited Democratic input.
While Senate Democrats may grumble at being sidelined, Republicans argue that they have made themselves irrelevant. And the chance to hand the ball to the administration may be privately welcomed by many Senate Democrats who have been clamoring for a stepped-up White House role in talks and who are struggling to unite behind any clear stance on what level of spending cuts they will accept.
House Republicans acknowledge that Tuesday's vote on the three-week CR, with 54 Republicans in opposition, gives House Democrats a larger role.
Republicans are optimistic about chances for agreement with Lew, who has worked with many House appropriators and won public praise from key players such as Appropriations Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
"Jack Lew and I go back a long way, so I really have high respect for him," Rogers said at a National Journal event on Wednesday. "He is a professional. He understands what each party has to contend with. So I am very hopeful we'll get it done."
A challenge will be finding agreement on an overall number for cuts. Republicans in both chambers are committed to meeting something close to the overall number of about $60 billion in cuts included in the seven-month continuing resolution the House passed last month, which the Senate rejected. Republican sources said Lew has indicated he will not agree on a large number for cuts without clarity on the implications to federal programs. Lew wants the policy to drive the numbers, the opposite of the GOP approach.
Asked on Wednesday if he has a number in mind, Rogers said he "was always told not to show your cards until [you are ready] to lay them down."
Rogers noted that the level of cuts, their effect on specific programs, and policy riders such as stripping funds from Planned Parenthood "are all part of the conversations we are having."
He added that House Republican leaders "will make the big decisions… and we will be a part of that conversation."
Rogers noted that the policy riders could also be included in the fiscal 2012 appropriations bills, a signal that they may not have to be included in a final deal. Democrats have argued they are nonstarters.
While President Obama has urged no cuts to funding for education, infrastructure, and other programs he believes will pay off in time, Rogers said that the pain must be shared across the discretionary budget, and that he expects government programs within his purview to remain under scrutiny and on the chopping block until deficits can be brought under control.
Major Garrett contributed to this report.