Talks ebb as lawmakers play the blame game, brace for shutdown

Talks between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ebbed Friday afternoon as lawmakers braced for a government shutdown at midnight.

A person familiar with the talks said the negotiations between Reid and Boehner were at the staff level Friday afternoon and no further meetings at the White House were scheduled.

A House GOP leadership aide tells The Hill that Speaker Boehner spoke with President Obama around 7 p.m. on Friday night but, it was unclear what was said in that conversation.

The focus of the day shifted to the blame game, with Democrats and Republicans accusing each other as the primary culprit for a shutdown, which appears increasingly likely.

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Senate Democrats held several press conferences on Friday to blame Republicans for refusing to drop a policy rider to defund Planned Parenthood, which they say is the final sticking point in the talks.

About half the Democrats stood together at a press conference in the Lyndon Baines Johnson room off the Senate chamber to pledge their staunch opposition to the rider.

Boehner has not said he would be willing to drop the rider, which social conservatives back because they see funding for Planned Parenthood as indirect funding for abortions.

Planned Parenthood is not allowed to use federal funds directly for abortions, but conservatives argue federal support would subsidize these procedures because funding is fungible.

Several Republican lawmakers, however, emerged from an earlier meeting with the House GOP conference confident that a deal was close at hand.

“Everything was pretty upbeat, optimistic. I think we’ll cut a deal,” freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) told The Hill.

When asked why he is not meeting face to face with Boehner, Reid said: “Don’t I wish.”

Reid said what all Democrats are waiting for is for Boehner to agree to the deal proposed at the White House last night. Reid said Boehner proposed $78 billion in cuts compared to Obama’s 2011 budget and the president accepted. 

That would amount to $37 billion in cuts below current spending levels, according to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has handled the Democratic message operation.

Democrats say the ball is squarely in the court of House Republicans. There were no public signs Friday that Boehner was trying to convince his caucus to drop the Planned Parenthood rider.

Boehner insists the fight is over spending levels and that “almost all” the policy differences between the two chambers have been settled. Republicans contend Democrats have stalled the negotiations by including billions of dollars in cuts to mandatory program in the $78 billion total. They argue some of those cuts could be deferred to future years.

Democrats agree that almost all the policy riders have been settled, save for one notable exception: a House GOP proposal to eliminate funding for family planning and preventive health services covered under Title X, which overlaps with federal support for Planned Parenthood.

There are signs that conservative members of the House GOP caucus may accept a deal, even if it means ceding ground on Planned Parenthood.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a leader of Tea Party-affiliated conservatives, wrote on RedState.com Friday afternoon that she’s ready to move on to bigger fights over entitlement reform, the national debt limit and the 2012 budget.

“House Republicans have brought about a change from the spending binge of the last two years. But it’s time to face the facts. This is the 'small ball' battle that House leadership has chosen to engage,” Bachmann wrote. “The current battle has devolved to an agenda that is almost too limited to warrant the kind of fighting that we’re now seeing in Washington.”  

Speaking to reporters late Friday afternoon, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said negotiators remain divided over the total number of cuts and how much of the cuts would come from discretionary and mandatory spending.

“Those numbers are still in flux,” Rogers said. “There’s movement generally, overall, and I think we’re getting reasonably close.”

Rogers, who did not attend a high-level meeting between Obama, Reid and Boehner on Thursday night, said, “The riders have been dealt with.” 

Rogers said if a deal were struck on an agreement to fund government through September, congressional leaders could act quickly to pass a short-term stopgap to prevent a shutdown over the weekend.

Senate Republicans are eager to move beyond the acrimonious debate over $37 billion to $61 billion in cuts from current spending levels, which is less than the amount of debt the federal government adds over the course of three weeks.. 

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the Senate’s most outspoken conservatives, said Friday that House Republicans “probably should” cut a deal to avert a shutdown. 

“It’s pretty unrealistic to think with this president that you’re going to get a lot of riders,” Coburn said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “That’s number one. Number two is, what’s the greatest moral dilemma of our day? Abortion certainly is a big one, but if we don’t address all these other financial issues that are going to cripple those that are with us, we’ll be making a mistake.”

Striding through a pack of reporters on his way to the House chamber on Friday afternoon, Boehner said he is holding up well under the pressure.

When a reporter remarked he looked tired, Boehner raised his eyebrows and said, “Really?”

Asked how he was feeling, he told them, “I’m a happy warrior.”