Shutdown is looming; parties focus on blame

House Republicans and Senate Democrats pregamed a government shutdown Tuesday, shifting their messaging machines into top gear to assign blame to the other side.

Each accused the other of refusing to negotiate in good faith to prevent the lights from going out on March 4.

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They remain far apart on how to finance Washington for the rest of the fiscal year, though agree that they need a stopgap bill to buy time to negotiate a deal.

But the two sides disagree on what should be in the short-term appropriation measure. Republicans want it to last as little as two weeks and contain immediate cuts. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called Tuesday for a 30-day bill with no cuts at all.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rejected the proposed 30-day continuing resolution (CR) outright, saying, “Keeping bloated spending levels in place and, predictably, proposing even more tax increases is simply unacceptable.”

A stopgap would let the parties haggle over the seven-month spending bill passed by the House on Saturday that cuts $61 billion from spending up through Sept. 30.

The contents of the stopgap are key to who would be blamed if the sides fail to agree and the federal government runs out of money early next month.

During the 1995 and 1996 government shutdowns, congressional Republicans lost the message war and Democrats were able to portray them as extremists willing to shutter the government rather than compromise on draconian cuts.

Both sides are seeking inoculation this time around. House leadership sent out a dozen press releases Tuesday, and Senate Democrats held two press calls.

“They are refusing to come to the table at all; there has been no negotiation,” Reid said on a press call.

Republicans need to “act like adults and figure out a way to fund the government for the rest of the year,” he added.

But the GOP countered. “Sen. Reid and the Democrats who run Washington should stop creating more uncertainty by spreading fears of a government shutdown and start telling the American people what, if anything, they are willing to cut,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a press release.

Reid argued that Republican demands for cuts in the short-term continuing resolution amount to preconditions for real negotiation over longer-term funding. 

Democrats, Reid said, are willing to discuss cuts from current spending levels in the long-term CR — he cited a Pentagon “ray gun” as an example — though he added that GOP riders to Saturday’s bill are completely unacceptable and show Republicans are not serious about seeking compromise.

Reid mocked the riders as “cute” “goodies,” such as the elimination of money for abortion, net neutrality and Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases.

“How do they expect us to accept them?” Reid said.

Reid announced that his chief of staff, David Krone, would negotiate with Boehner’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, over the 30-day stopgap and longer CR.

In the press call, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that Reid “offered an olive branch to Republicans and they flatly rejected it.”

And he referred to the blame games of the past, when he said Boehner was aware of the political damage he would incur if, like former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), he shut down the government. 

“He is being misled and pushed around by his conservative freshmen, who don’t remember what happened last time,” Schumer said.

Republicans countered that they are willing to negotiate the long-term funding, but blamed Reid for threatening a shutdown by insisting on no short-term cuts. 

“We’re glad to see that they’re open to doing something other than the status quo and are always happy to speak with our counterparts,” said McConnell’s spokesman, John Ashbrook.

 Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said: “The only people who refuse to consider any spending cuts in the short-term CR are the Senate Democratic leaders like Sens. Reid and Schumer. With a massive federal deficit and record-setting debt, the idea that we can’t cut one penny worth of federal government spending is indefensible.”  

The continuing resolution Reid plans to introduce would extend funding at current levels, which Reid said is a $41 billion cut from President Obama’s 2011 budget request.

Using the same baseline for comparison, Republicans on Saturday morning passed a spending bill funding the government through Sept. 30 at $100 billion less than Obama’s request. 

Cantor said Reid’s “smoke-and-mirrors version of spending cuts doesn’t pass the smell test.” 

Even as the press releases were flying, House GOP staff was beginning an internal struggle to come up with the short-term bill. 

To satisfy party freshmen, it must include cuts, but the GOP has to weigh these demands against the risk of overreaching and losing the message war if the Democratic Senate rejects the cuts and a shutdown follows. 

Staffers are weighing whether to put “poison pills” into the bill, such as provisions defunding Obama’s healthcare reform law, according to an aide familiar with the talks. 

But giving up the attack on healthcare in the near term could make it harder to reinstate later, an aide said.

 The House stopgap bill is due to be unveiled at the end of the week, aides said.