By Russell Berman - 03/30/11 11:05 PM EDT
The White House and congressional Republicans edged closer to a budget deal Wednesday, as House and Senate Appropriations staff resumed negotiations at the direction of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
A source familiar with the talks said members of the Senate and House Appropriations panels are working toward a target of $33 billion in spending cuts. The $33 billion goal splits the difference between $30 billion in cuts Senate Democrats have proposed and $36 billion in cuts Boehner suggested in talks with White House officials, according to the source.
A Republican committee aide said the negotiations would not encompass the most controversial policy restrictions, known as riders, that the House GOP added to the budget bill it passed in February.
Michael Steel, Boehner's spokesman, denied that a deal has been reached between GOP and Democratic leaders.
"No. There have been discussions for weeks, and those discussions are continuing. There's no agreement, and nothing will be agreed to until everything is agreed to," Steel said.
Still, the private talks were seen as a sign of progress even as an acrimonious war of words between the parties unfolded in public over a budget stalemate that could shut down the government after April 8.
Boehner instructed the House Appropriations Committee to begin negotiations with their Senate-side counterparts after leadership aides to Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) met on Tuesday night. The move suggested the two sides had agreed to a top-line figure, since Republican House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (Ky.), has said consistently he would not initiate talks unless a figure had been settled on.
Rogers would not divulge that number, but told reporters Wednesday that he hoped the negotiations would be “fruitful.”
“I’m glad that we’re beginning to have conversations,” he said off the House floor. “I hope they’re fruitful. We’re going to try to make them fruitful. We don’t want a shutdown, so we’ll do the best we know how.”
Rogers cautioned that the details would not be worked out overnight.
“We’ve got to go through the entire federal budget covered by H.R. 1,” he said, referring to the spending bill the House GOP passed in February that would cut $61 billion over the final seven months of the fiscal year. “It’s going to take some time,” Rogers said.
In the Senate, Vice President Joe Biden and Budget Director Jack Lew met with Democrats at the Capitol Wednesday evening.
The resumption of negotiations came amid a broad Republican bid to cement party unity heading into the decisive final week before the budget deadline. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announced Wednesday morning that Republicans would take up a bill on Friday aimed at prodding the Senate to pass a long-term spending bill, which it has not done in the 40 days since the House approved its proposal. The new legislation decrees that, absent Senate passage of a budget bill by the April 8 deadline, the measure approved by the House in February would become “the law of the land.”
The move appeared to be purely symbolic, because like the previous Republican bill, it would have to win approval from a Democratic Senate and White House that have already rejected it.
Republicans described their plan, dubbed the Government Shutdown Prevention Act, as giving Democrats one last chance to keep the government running amid budget talks that are at impasse.
“We are serious,” Cantor told reporters after GOP leaders informed their conference of the plan on Wednesday morning. “We want to take care of this problem so we can get on with the business of this nation and get Americans back to work.”
He said the bill the House plans to consider would also prevent members of Congress from being paid in the event of a shutdown. The Senate has already approved such language.
“It shows we are united. It shows we are serious,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said. He acknowledged the bill was designed to “prod the Senate” to act.
The plan was quickly derided by both Democrats and Senate Republicans, however, who responded by offering a civics lesson to their House colleagues.
“My reaction to that is ultimately the whole body including the executive branch has to sign on here or we're just whistling in the wind,” Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said: “To be the law of the land, a bill has to pass the Senate and be signed by the president.”
Hours after the Cantor announcement, a House GOP Appropriations subcommittee chairman, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), said he hadn’t heard about it. Told of the plan, he laughed and said: “If we can do that, can’t we just deem the budget balanced?”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) mocked the proposal, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, called it “a political stunt.”
Yet the House GOP proposal won praise from several members of the party’s rank-and-file, including freshmen members whom Boehner and Cantor will need to back any budget deal with Democrats. Lawmakers said it would help to unify the occasionally fractious GOP conference by putting the onus back on the Senate to act on a spending plan.
“It absolutely is productive,” freshman Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) said, claiming the measure would “reaffirm exactly what our position is.”
Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who has criticized the scope of GOP spending cuts, said voting again for the House plan “shows my constituents that we’re doing something.”
In another sign that freshmen were on board with the leadership message, a group of 30 first-term Republicans released a letter to Reid blaming him for the budget impasse.
“Mr. Reid, your record on spending in the Senate is one of failure. You have failed to pass a budget, failed to restrain spending and failed to put our country on sound fiscal footing,” the first-term members, led by Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), wrote in the letter delivered on Wednesday. “We do not accept your failure as our own.”
The missive called on the Senate to pass a long-term spending bill funding the government for the rest of the year. “Make no mistake: Any government shutdown is the result of your lack of leadership,” the lawmakers wrote.
A spokesman for Reid, Jon Summers, replied: “When Republicans are done with their juvenile stunts, Senator Reid will be waiting at the negotiating table, ready to work out a responsible, bipartisan solution that cuts billions in government spending while protecting jobs and avoiding a dangerous shutdown that would delay Social Security checks and veterans’ benefits.”
Erik Wasson, Alexander Bolton and Jordan Fabian contributed reporting.
This story was posted at 3:54 p.m. and last updated at 7:05 p.m.