Brinkmanship and traded barbs in the shadow of a shutdown

Congressional negotiators worked feverishly to hammer out a deal on spending cuts and policy restrictions ahead of Friday’s deadline for averting a government shutdown.

A Thursday night White House meeting between President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ended without resolving the stalemate, but the congressional leaders said in a joint statement that they had "narrowed the issues."

The private budget talks played out against a backdrop of increasingly bitter broadsides Thursday between Republicans and Democrats.

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Congressional leaders reported progress in around-the-clock negotiations, but each side accused the other of backing away from a final deal.

Without congressional action on Friday, the government would shutter at midnight for the first time in 15 years.

Democrats said the top sticking point remained the inclusion of policy provisions, known as riders, demanded by Republicans that would strip funding for Planned Parenthood and rein in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Unless they back off those riders it’s going to be impossible, pretty much, to prevent a shutdown,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the party’s messaging chief, said late Thursday afternoon following a Democratic caucus meeting.

Senate Democrats said they offered to hold separate votes on the abortion and EPA provisions, only to be rebuffed by Boehner.

Democrats have repeatedly suggested the two sides are in agreement on the level of spending cuts — somewhere between $33 billion and $40 billion.

Republicans have denied that claim, however, and Boehner on Thursday insisted “there is no agreement on a number; there are no agreements on the policy issues that are contained with this.”

“We’re continuing to work toward an agreement, because I do believe all of us sincerely believe that we can get to an agreement. But we are not there yet,” Boehner said as he stood alongside Reid outside the White House following an afternoon meeting with the president.

The two leaders returned to the White House on Thursday evening for their third presidential meeting in 24 hours. Earlier, senior congressional and administration officials huddled in Boehner’s Capitol suite.

Republicans disputed the Democrats’ characterization of the negotiations, which appeared to deteriorate overnight. 

The tone took a downturn when Reid informed House negotiators Thursday morning that his caucus wouldn’t accept the broad deal, described as a “working offer,” that aides reached at 2 a.m., according to GOP leadership aides and lawmakers familiar with the talks.

Several GOP lawmakers also said the level of spending cuts was equally or more important than the policy provisions.

Senior GOP Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.) — a member of the House Republican whip team — said Boehner would have the votes to pass a bill that did not contain riders.

“I’m convinced, right now, if [Boehner] comes back and says this is the deal, he’s got the votes he needs,” Cole told The Hill.

Even if it didn’t have the policy riders, Cole predicted that a bill would pass — as long as the cuts in funding came from the discretionary pot.

“I think this is evolving into a pure spending fight,” Cole said, adding that a deal that cut mandatory funds, instead of discretionary dollars, would be received by the GOP conference “less well.”

Even if negotiators strike a last-minute deal, the House and Senate would have to scramble to avoid a shutdown. The most likely scenario is that officials would seek to pass a quick stopgap measure to keep the government running through the weekend, buying time for a long-term bill to be crafted and posted to lawmakers.

In a shift, the White House said Obama would sign a clean stopgap measure for an additional week if talks were making “significant progress.” Previously, the president had said he would only sign such a measure if a deal were in place.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announced Thursday that the House would stay in session until a deal is reached, postponing a scheduled recess. The GOP conference was expected to meet on Friday to discuss the status of negotiations.

As Thursday proceeded with no deal in sight, the House, at Boehner’s direction, approved a stopgap measure extending government funding for one week while financing the military for the rest of the fiscal year.

Obama threatened to veto the bill. The administration said in a statement that the president “believes that we need to put politics aside and work out our differences for a bill that covers the rest of the fiscal year.”

House Republicans flouted the threat and attacked the president in sharp terms for opposing what they dubbed a “troop funding” bill.

“Even though I have been in Washington for a few terms, I have not lost my ability to be outraged,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who had strongly praised Obama’s intervention in Libya, said the president “should be, frankly, embarrassed.”

“He’s putting politics ahead of our troops,” Hunter said.

The measure cuts $12 billion in non-military spending over one week and includes a provision prohibiting funding for abortions in the District of Columbia.

While the administration had previously voiced opposition to the measure, a GOP leadership source said Republicans, including Boehner, were infuriated when the White House issued a formal veto threat without first informing the Speaker.

The House measure passed 247-181, with six Republicans opposing and 16 Democrats voting in favor.

Some Republicans speculated that Reid asked the president for a veto threat on the stopgap measure to provide political cover after he had repeatedly described the legislation as a nonstarter in the Senate.

The House measure is opposed by Senate Democrats and not expected to reach Obama’s desk.

“I’m disappointed we haven’t been able to get something done to this point,” Reid said after the afternoon White House meeting. “But I’m pleased that we’re still working.”

Reid said negotiators have basically agreed to the total level of cuts for the rest of fiscal 2011 but strong disagreement remains over controversial policy riders.

“The only thing holding up an agreement is an ideology,” Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday morning.

“The two main issues holding this matter up are the choice of women, reproductive rights, and clean air,” Reid said. “These matters have no place in a budget bill.”

Reid said the president and Democratic leaders would not give any more ground in the talks.

“We have given everything that we can give,” he said.

Alexander Bolton, Molly K. Hooper, Michael O’Brien and Sam Youngman contributed reporting.