Boehner says spending must be cut, but Senate Democrats won’t budge

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday ruled out a short-term government-funding bill that maintains current levels of federal spending, escalating a standoff with Democrats and President Obama that could result in a government shutdown.

“I am not going to move any kind of short-term [funding bill] at current levels,” he told reporters at his weekly press conference. 

“When we say we’re going to cut spending, read my lips, we’re going to cut spending,” Boehner added, invoking George H.W. Bush’s infamous and ultimately broken pledge on taxes during the 1988 presidential campaign.

Democratic Senate leaders refused to budge, saying a short-term bill should keep current funding levels in place. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) likened Boehner’s comment to “throwing down the gauntlet.”

“What he is saying is he will not renew even the short-term [continuing resolution] unless his way is met. That’s a shutdown,” Schumer told reporters. “The best way to do the short -term is what we do all along, which is continue the present level. And then negotiate at how you get to the deeper level.”

Congress needs to approve some sort of budget measure by March 4 in order to avoid a government work stoppage.

The House is expected to approve a continuing resolution to fund the government for the remaining seven months of fiscal 2011, but Obama has threatened to veto it because of the deep spending cuts it contains.

With time running out to strike a deal, senior lawmakers have begun discussions on a short-term budget measure to keep the government going. Those bills typically extend government spending at current levels, sometimes for only a few weeks.

But Boehner drew a line in the sand on Thursday, declaring that any budget bill — short-term or not — must reduce government spending.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) countered that instead of launching “ultimatums,” Republicans should be focusing on “how to keep government open, not how we intend to shut it down.”

“So much is at stake,” Pelosi said. “Every category [of government] you can name will be affected by [a budget bill].”

The House bill, which would fund the government through September, cuts $61 billion from 2010 spending. Senate Democrats have characterized it as dead on arrival, creating the need for an interim funding measure to buy time for negotiations.

Boehner’s brinksmanship sharpened the specter of a government shutdown reminiscent of 1995, when a Democratic president stared down a young Republican majority on Capitol Hill.

Republican leaders have not explicitly ruled out closing down the government, but have accused Democrats of “rooting” for that eventuality. The political fallout of the 1995 battle ultimately favored President Clinton, giving Democrats added confidence in their position this time around.

Boehner said Thursday that Democrats “are threatening to shut down the government rather than cut spending.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he hopes “cooler heads will prevail” in the negotiations over a spending bill.

“I am disappointed that Speaker Boehner doesn’t believe he has the votes to avoid a government shutdown, unless his members get their way on all of their demands,” Reid said in a statement. “It is unproductive to resort to threats of a shutdown without any negotiations.”

“We hope cooler heads will prevail, and that Speaker Boehner and his Republican colleagues will work with us on a path forward,” Reid said.

Obama’s budget director on Thursday stressed that a stoppage can be avoided despite the intensifying rhetoric. 

Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew said Obama and Boehner have room to negotiate, despite their dueling threats.

“We very strongly believe we will be able to avoid the type of confrontation that might lead to a veto or a government shutdown,” Lew said at a lunch sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

Lew suggested Thursday that the president could accept reducing current spending by $61 billion, depending on where the cuts were made. But he said the White House has “yet to see” a bill that cuts that much spending without harming the nation’s future.

Leading House Republicans said they were on the same page as Boehner. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said the Speaker’s statement was “spot-on.”

“If we were just going to continue to kick the can down the road and do a short-term [continuing resolution] …  and continue to spend at the current levels, that’s agreeing to what the Democrat House, the Democrat Senate and the Democrat administration put together last year,” Jordan said in a C-SPAN “Newsmakers” interview set to air on Sunday.

“This election in November was all about not agreeing to that. So there is no way we can agree to fund the government at current levels. We have to achieve some savings for the American people,” Jordan said.

The chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), said a short-term measure should include spending cuts to engender “good will” between the parties heading into the long-run negotiations. “I think we need something in return for it,” he said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who has begun holding discussions on a stopgap funding bill, called for both sides to remain “reasonable.”

“Neither house of Congress is in a position to dictate terms to the other, so I remain hopeful that we will come to a sensible accommodation,” he said in a statement.

Andrew Restuccia, Michael O’Brien, Mike Lillis 
and Erik Wasson contributed to this story.