Budget showdown, short-term and long

The Democrats' push for a short-term continuing resolution (CR) at current spending levels is exactly the plan GOP leaders have rejected outright.

“I am not going to move any kind of short-term CR at current levels,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced Thursday. 

The assertion foreshadows a face-off between party leaders, not only over a budget plan for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, which runs through September, but also over a temporary stop-gap plan to prevent a government shutdown while the sides hash out a final bill. (The current law to fund the federal government expires March 4).

And all of this before the larger debate on the 2012 budget even begins. 

The episode also highlights how much leverage Democrats have lost in the budget debate over just the past few months. In December, they'd championed an omnibus spending bill that would have increased spending by $1.1 trillion through fiscal 2011. (It failed). Now they're in a battle simply to keep spending at current 2010 levels – a plan Republicans are vowing to defeat. 

“When we say we’re going to cut spending, read my lips, we’re going to cut spending,” Boehner said.

Although the House on Saturday approved a GOP proposal funding the government through the rest of the fiscal year, it stands little chance in the Senate, where Democrats are opposed to the $61 billion in cuts. 

"Democrats believe we should make smart cuts – cuts that target waste and excess, not slash the programs that keep us safe and keep our economy growing," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Saturday in a statement. 

“Now that House Republicans have gotten this vote out of their system, I hope they will drop the threats of shutting down the government and work with the Senate."

Both the House and Senate are on recess through next week, leaving party leaders just four days to reach a deal when they return to Washington Feb. 28. The time-squeeze pertains to both the long- and short-term CR proposals.

Anticipating that Congress will miss the March 4 deadline, House Democratic leaders late Friday released a short-term CR that would extend the government's current funding authority through March. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the temporary measure is necessary to prevent a "calamitous" shutdown of the federal government. 

"This legislation will allow Congress to complete work on [fiscal year] 2011 appropriations without punishing the American people by denying them vital services," she said in a statement.

GOP leaders are also conceding the likelihood of a short-term CR. But asked Friday night about the GOP's plans for such a stopgap bill, Boehner provided no details. 

"You'll know soon enough," he said.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was quick to blast the freeze proposal, accusing House Democrats of "resigning themselves to a future of higher unemployment and spiraling debt."

"Americans have been clear, he said in a statement. "Freezing in place the current unsustainable spending levels is simply unacceptable.”