Leaders see progress in budget talks

Talks on a 2011 spending deal progressed Wednesday even as time was running out for congressional leaders and the White House to avoid a government shutdown.

“I think we’ve made some progress, yes, but we are not finished. Not by a long shot,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Democrats are trying to avoid a shutdown and talks with Republicans would continue.

“We’ll meet with them again and continue the conversations we’ve been having,” he said Wednesday evening. “We’re going to keep talking and keep trying to find middle ground.” 

But there were signs a stalemate remained as Boehner and Reid returned to the White House late Wednesday night to meet with President Obama for a second straight day.

No agreement was reached during the 90-minute Oval Office meeting, but all three said some progress has been made.

"We've narrowed the issues significantly," Reid said, speaking from outside the White House. "I have confidence we can get this done. We're not there yet, but hope lies eternal."

Boehner, appearing with Reid, said the negotiations were productive, but said, "There is no agreement on a number, and there is no agreement on the policy riders."

"There is no reason why we should not be able to complete a deal," Obama said in a brief post-negotiation appearance in the White House briefing room, where he was accompanied by senior staff and Vice President Biden.

The White House invite came after Boehner announced a last-minute effort by House Republicans to keep the government running. He said there will be a vote Thursday on a stopgap spending bill to keep the government functioning for another week while cutting $12 billion in spending.

The move sets up a confrontation with Senate Democrats and the White House as negotiators struggle to complete a budget agreement in time to avert a government shutdown this weekend. 

Democrats are opposed to the latest GOP measure, which would also fund the military for the remainder of the fiscal year. Republicans acknowledged, however, that the bill could be amended before it reaches the floor to keep the government operating for a few days and buy time for negotiators to reach a broader deal.

The planned vote on Thursday marks another attempt by House Republicans to put the onus on Senate Democrats to prevent a shutdown.

“Republicans have no interest in shutting down the government,” an exasperated Boehner declared at the conclusion of his afternoon press conference. “Shutting down the government, I think, is irresponsible, and I think it will end up costing the American taxpayers more money than we’re already spending.”

Reid, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday evening, tried to place responsibility with the Republicans.

“They’ll say it’s short term, but what it really is is a shortcut,” he said of the Thursday vote.


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While Reid has deemed the one-week extension a nonstarter, the bill could also serve as a legislative vehicle to enact a simpler stopgap measure if a deal is reached by Thursday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told The Hill.

If it appears that all sides are close to an agreement, Rogers said the one-week bill could be amended in such a way that the House, Senate and White House would support a temporary funding extension.

Rogers said that the House might not need to vote on his bill as currently written.

“It may have to be modified, as we go along here; if some good things happen, and we reach some agreements, then we might be able to change that vehicle … to give us some time,” Rogers said.

Rogers said that he was more optimistic on Wednesday than he was on Tuesday about averting a shutdown.

Boehner said that any agreement would likely need two or three days to be finalized for a vote.

Should negotiators reach an agreement on a long-term bill by Friday, they could amend the GOP bill to buy time to translate a deal into legislative language, post that measure and then vote on it. 

Carney reiterated that a one-week extension was unacceptable to the administration, unless it were to simply allow time for a final deal to clear procedural hurdles. 

“What the president said yesterday is what his position is today, which is that he would entertain an essentially clean, very short-term [extension] if there were an agreement ... and all that was necessary was a few more days to essentially file the paperwork and get it through the process on Capitol Hill,” Carney said.

Aides to Reid and Boehner are continuing to discuss a compromise that would set 2011 spending cuts at $33 billion, according to a source familiar with the talks.

The source said negotiators are not looking at a target as high as $40 billion, a number that leaked from the negotiations earlier this week.

Negotiators are focusing on the total amount of spending cuts over the next six months before hashing out controversial policy restrictions Republicans are demanding.

Reid has said he would consider some of the provisions House Republicans want attached to the spending bill but has ruled out the most controversial amendments that would strip funding from the healthcare law, Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency and National Public Radio. Among the restrictions that could remain include a ban on funding for the transfer of detainees to the U.S. from Guantánamo Bay.

Democratic leaders have refused to say publicly what amendments they might accept.

Although many House Republicans had said they would not support another short-term extension, the inclusion of funding for the military for the rest of the year appears to have won over most if not all of the conference. A leading conservative who was one of 54 Republicans to oppose the last temporary extension, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), announced shortly after Wednesday’s meeting with leadership that he would back the latest measure.

To drum up support, GOP leaders have branded the legislation the “troop funding bill.”

Democrats who helped the GOP approve last month’s extension have vowed to oppose the one-week bill over its steep cuts and the inclusion of a measure prohibiting funding for abortions in the District of Columbia.

Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) guaranteed the measure would be approved. “It will pass with Republican votes,” he said. “No doubt about it.”

A source who participated in the closed-door GOP meeting on Wednesday said the conference was more united than several weeks ago.

“Harry Reid’s inaction has unified us. I think that two weeks ago we were divided; now people are starting to sober up; I think Boehner’s moving,” the source said.

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) credited Boehner for the unity. 

“The Speaker expressed his disappointment with the 54 people who took a walk on us a couple weeks ago and said that regardless of how you feel on the issue, if you send your guy in to negotiate a contract and the other side knows you’ve got nothing behind you, then you aren’t going to be successful,” LaTourette said. “That, I think, galvanized people more than anything else.”

GOP freshman Rep. Tim Griffin (Ark.) came away from the conference meeting with hope that a shutdown could be averted.

“I have a little bit of optimism that something could be done and I think the general mood in the room was, they still are communicating and working on an agreement,” Griffin told The Hill.

Alexander Bolton and Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.

This story was updated at 11:15 p.m.