By Erik Wasson - 03/04/11 12:29 AM EST
The Obama administration opened talks on a budget deal Thursday with congressional Republicans and Democrats, but the two sides appeared miles apart on how much to reduce this year’s spending.
The White House offered to slash spending by an additional $6.5 billion a day after President Obama signed short-term legislation cutting spending by $4 billion to prevent a government shutdown.
There were no signs of progress at the initial meeting between Vice President Biden and leaders in both parties Thursday, and aides said additional short-term measures to keep the government running are a virtual certainty.
Biden’s meeting with McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ran for just over an hour. Once it ended, the vice president released a terse statement that read: “We had a good meeting, and the conversation will continue.”
The White House and congressional Democrats rallied around their new offer for much of Thursday, arguing it was a sign they were meeting the GOP halfway on its proposal. The Democratic messaging came after Boehner taunted Biden before the meeting, saying the White House should press Senate Democrats to come up with their own plan for reducing spending.
With their new offer, Democrats hoped to put pressure on Boehner and Republicans to respond.
Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said spending cuts proposed by the White House would reduce Obama’s 2011 budget request, which was never enacted, by more than $50 billion.
Republicans, he said, had promised in their campaign “Pledge to America” that they would reduce spending from Obama’s budget request by $100 billion.
“Democrats stand ready to meet Republicans halfway,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday during a news conference before the Biden meeting.
Sperling did not spell out where the new cuts proposed by the White House would be made, and the economic council director would not say whether Biden would be providing specifics at the meeting.
The GOP questioned Sperling’s math, and in a colloquy with House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) vowed that his party would move bills cutting federal spending by $2 billion a week until Democrats produce a plan.
“We would encourage the Senate and Leader Reid to act so that we can move forward, and until then, Mr. Speaker, I would say to my friend from Maryland that I would expect the House to continue its process of cutting $2 billion a week until we can see where the gentleman's caucus and then the Democratic Leader in the Senate is,” Cantor said.
While Democrats sought to portray unity, there are significant differences within the party over how much to cut this year, with Pelosi and other liberals objecting to even the $4 billion in cuts in this week’s bill. Centrist senators like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), on the other hand, have called for deeper spending cuts.
The fractures have been evident throughout the week, as more than 100 House Democrats voted against Pelosi and in favor of the $4 billion in cuts this week.
In the Senate on Wednesday, 10 Democrats voted in favor of a nonbinding “Sense of the Senate” resolution calling for passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. The effort was led by freshman Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a favorite of the Tea Party Movement.
The GOP has been more united, but Boehner and McConnell are under heavy pressure from conservatives to take a hard line in the talks, even as they also face pressure to avoid a government shutdown.
For example, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who voted against the measure reducing spending by $4 billion, told The Hill he will do everything he can to make sure the final spending deal defunds Obama's healthcare reforms.
Heritage Action, a group affiliated with the conservative Heritage Foundation, announced it will oppose additional short-term extensions and called for the immediate enactment of the House measure reducing this year’s spending by $61 billion.
“If the President and Senate Democrats are genuine in their desire to fund the government, cut non-security spending and avoid a shutdown, H.R.1 should be their starting point,” said the group’s CEO, Michael A. Needham, in a reference to the House bill. “Anything less and they will demonstrate a fundamentally unserious approach to our looming fiscal crisis.”
The White House and Republicans differ on other policy riders included in the House spending bill, though some in the GOP showed a willingness to compromise on some of these issues.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the chairman of the House Appropriation Committee’s Environment subcommittee, told The Hill Thursday that he’d support dropping a series of riders that block funding for EPA regulations if it prevents lawmakers from reaching a compromise on spending cuts.
Russell Berman, Mike Lillis and Pete Kasperowitz contributed to this story.