Democrats say only $6 billion separates sides in budget talks

Senate leader Reid says sides are ready to find common ground.

The difference between a government shutdown or not might come down to just $6 billion in a $3 trillion-plus budget.

Senate Democrats asserted on Tuesday that the two sides are only $6 billion apart from a deal to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends on September 30, and urged House Republicans to come to the Senate to hash out a compromise.

"We are ready to find common ground," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Republicans disputed Democrats' account of events and stressed any talk of a deal is premature.

"There are a lot of numbers that have been discussed and thrown around," House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said on Tuesday. "The fact is, there's not an agreement [among] numbers. And secondly, nothing's agreed to until everything is agreed to."

According to Democrats, House Republicans had-at one point in negotiations-said they were 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 President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget proposal.

But, Democrats contend, Republicans have since backed away from the emerging framework for a deal, casting the GOP leaders as under pressure to do so from hard-line conservatives in their conference.

Instead, Republicans are continuing to publicly push to cut $100 billion in discretionary spending compared to Obama's fiscal 2011 budget-a promise made during last year's campaign-or $61 billion from current spending.

The House passed that GOP proposal last month, and included several policy riders such as a provision to strip funding from Planned Parenthood and prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions.

Senate Democrats, who believe the GOP proposal is too severe, have put 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 those $51 billion in cuts, in addition to $20 billion in new cuts that include discretionary and mandatory spending reductions.

"Sitting on Sen. Reid's desk right now is a serious proposal that cuts $70 billion in government spending while protecting America's economic recovery," Jon Summers, Reid's spokesman, said in a release. "If Republicans are truly interested in forging a bipartisan agreement that avoids a government shutdown, they should come back to the negotiating table and look at what's in the proposal."

Reid attributed GOP reluctance to compromise to concern over a possible backlash from the conservative tea party wing of the Republican conference.

"Republicans need to decide which is worse: angering their tea party base, or shutting down the government and threatening our fragile economy even more," Reid said. "The recovery right now is fragile; a shutdown would make it really bad."

House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., engaged in a rhetorical bob-and-weave with reporters on Tuesday afternoon over whether House Republicans had, in fact, pulled back last week from talks that may have led to a potential compromise.

"I think it's very one-sided what you're hearing," said Cantor at one point. Pressed, then, whether he was refuting the story that Republicans walked away because of internal problems in selling the plan to the GOP conference, Cantor said, "[What] I'm saying is there's never been any internal disagreement on our side about the need for us to go forward and cut spending in this town."

He said the $61 billion in cuts contained in H.R. 1 already passed by the House "is our position. We demonstrated that."

"And the Senate has not demonstrated anything. They're telling you a lot," he said, saying that Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Chairman Chuck Schumer of New York and Democrats want "to continue to sort of drive this wedge within our conference. I'm telling you that's not true."

Boehner said that talks have also touched on the policy riders included in the House-passed package. Including some of the riders in the final deal would give Boehner a point on which to sell conservatives reluctant to back the plan that cuts less than the $61 billion proposed in the House bill.

"It's just not cutting spending," Boehner said. "There are a number of limitations that passed [on] the floor of the House."

Boehner also noted that spending bills typically carry such riders that limit how funding can be spent. Some Democrats have argued that the measure funding the rest of the year should be free of such provisions, which they contend complicates negotiations.

Reid indicated that riders were under consideration, but also signaled that they are generally opposed by Democrats.

"We're happy to look at the policy riders," Reid said. "There aren't many of them that excite me. But we're willing to look at them. In fact, we've already started looking at some of the policy riders."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said on a conference call that the Planned Parenthood provision is "a nonstarter."

"It's not budgeting; it's a political vendetta, and we are not going to be a party to that," Boxer said, adding that the several other policy riders would "repeal major portions of the Clean Air Act" and that Democrats would not likely agree to them either.

Boehner also called on Senate Democrats to pass a measure, just as the House did last month, so that the two chambers could conference their positions in the regular fashion.

"It's time for the Senate to move a bill so that we can sit down and begin the negotiations," Boehner said. "We're not going to negotiate with ourselves."
"We've done our work," Boehner continued.

Democrats call the suggestion that they simply bring their proposal to the floor unrealistic. Without a deal with House Republicans, the plan would not pass the House. Additionally, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., according to GOP aides, is following Boehner's lead. GOP aides say McConnell and Senate Republicans will back a bill if Boehner and House Republicans will. Senate Republicans are also unlikely to provide the seven votes Reid would need to pass his own bill without House GOP support.

"We have a proposal," Summers said. "All they have to do is just talk to us and we can negotiate … They walked away from the table. They have to come back."

Dan Friedman contributed to this report.