Debate over policies, not numbers, dogs long-term budget negotiations

Pressure on Republican leaders and the White House to hammer out a long-term spending plan intensified Wednesday, as attention increasingly turned to a series of contentious policy divisions at the center of the budget standoff.

With the expected passage of another stopgap spending measure, congressional leaders are looking at a three-week negotiating window to bridge the wide gap between the parties and avert a government shutdown.

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Over the last month, Democrats and the Obama administration have consented to Republican demands for initial cuts of $2 billion a week in exchange for the exclusion of GOP-backed restrictions on spending for the healthcare law, environmental regulations, abortion providers and other programs.

But those provisions, which Republicans tacked onto a House-passed spending bill last month, are again coming to the fore as conservatives demand their inclusion in any deal to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year. 

Fifty-four House Republicans broke with party leadership to oppose the three-week stopgap measure the House approved on Tuesday. Many cited the absence of provisions banning funds for the healthcare law and Planned Parenthood, the abortion-rights group.

President Obama has already denounced those add-ons, known as policy riders. On Wednesday, Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democrat, seized on the GOP defections and called on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) “to abandon the Tea Party.”

“In order to avoid a dead end on these budget talks he [Boehner] should abandon the Tea Party and work to find a bipartisan consensus,” Schumer said on the floor Wednesday afternoon. “It’s the only way out of this bind.”

House Democrats have argued that Tuesday’s vote strengthened their hand, since the Republican majority needed 29 Democratic votes to pass the bill. Boehner would not concede that point on Wednesday, but he acknowledged — as he has before — that “Republicans control just one-half of one-third of our government” and would have to strike a deal with Democrats.

“It’s not going to be easy. We never thought it was going to be easy,” Boehner said.

The Senate is likely to approve the short-term measure on Thursday.

Some Republicans have conceded that the most controversial policy riders are bargaining chips in the broader spending debate, recognizing that President Obama would never sign a bill that cuts funding for the healthcare law, for example.

“All riders are expendable for a certain price — a couple billion here, a couple of billion there, some riders go in, some come out,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. 

Kingston said that the 54-member defection weakens Boehner’s hand in dealing with Senate Democrats.

“If I am Harry Reid and the Democrats, I would be watching and think maybe I am smelling a little blood. We’ll just postpone this a little bit longer,” he said. 

Kingston would have preferred Boehner to be able to say to the Senate that the GOP is united on what it wants. 

Another senior appropriator, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), said, in reference to a provision restricting the Environmental Protection Agency, that he is “willing to give up the language riders if we get the right number,” on the size of budget cuts.

 Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a staunch conservative who has pushed aggressively to defund the healthcare law in the current-year spending bills, criticized lawmakers who viewed the policy rider as a bargaining chip.

“If members think it’s a bargaining chip, that means they’re thinking about giving it away,” he said. The defunding of healthcare, he said, was “a lot more important than $62 billion” — the approximate level of cuts in the House-passed budget.

While some of the tacked-on provisions are certain to go, GOP leaders are likely to insist that others remain in a final agreement.Boehner said earlier this week that a budget would need to include not only spending cuts but “restrictions” on spending as well.

A GOP leadership aide said, “It is very clear the House cannot pass a bill without policy restrictions.” 

Congressional and administration officials said that, while no high-level negotiations were scheduled, conversations among the House, Senate and White House were continuing. Boehner is scheduled to host Obama and Vice President Biden on Thursday for a lunch celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at the Capitol.

The riders, along with the overall level and specifics of the cuts as well as where those cuts should come from, are the three key variables in the negotiations, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Wednesday.

“There will not be a shutdown,” he said. “I am determined, and our party is determined, not to have a shutdown.”

Outside conservative groups that opposed the stopgap bill, including arms of the Club for Growth, Heritage Foundation and Family Research Council, were also ramping up pressure on the longer-term budget deal.

Conservative activists were focusing on maximizing the Senate “no” vote from GOP conservatives when the three-week continuing resolution comes up for a vote Thursday, one lobbyist said. The stronger the showing, the more it will become clear that the riders will have to remain in the final deal, the lobbyist said.

Of all the riders, several activists said that defunding Obama’s healthcare reform is emerging as the top priority.

Liberal groups are mounting a counteroffensive. On Wednesday, EMILY’s List and MoveOn.org launched a new campaign aimed at the cuts in the continuing resolution, including to Planned Parenthood.

Josiah Ryan contributed to this article.