It’s been almost a week since House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House last sat down to hammer out a budget agreement, and the schedule’s still blank. Accusations of bad faith are now flying from both sides. Republicans are poised to reject a White House offer, TPM has learned, that would cut over $30 billion in current spending because of disagreements over whether the package should include cuts to mandatory spending programs. Democrats are pushing for such cuts, which include the big entitlement programs, though the specific cuts they’re proposing remain unclear. In an ironic twist, Republicans oppose those cuts and want to limit the negotiations to non-defense discretionary spending, a smaller subset of the federal budget.
Taken together, the last several days’ worth of developments bode very poorly for the goal of reaching a six-month agreement on spending. The parties have until April 8 to reach agreement, and the odds of a government shutdown are higher now than they’ve been since this process began.
Asked about the offer the White House has floated, a top Republican aide says, “This debate has always been about discretionary spending — not autopilot ‘mandatory’ spending or tax hikes.”
If that position doesn’t soften, it’s hard to see how the two parties reach agreement.
A source briefed on the negotiations says the White House — specifically chief of staff Bill Daley — had reached an agreement in principle with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to reduce spending by over $30 billion, which is about the same overall number that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan first proposed several weeks ago before getting dragged to the right by conservatives in the GOP caucus.
A House Republican leadership aide disputes the precise specifics of that account. But what’s clear is that things looked better before last Tuesday. Democrats thought they’d reached an understanding with Republicans about spending levels and only needed to figure out whether Republicans would accept specific cuts, including the cuts to mandatory spending Democrats were planning to offer.
Then on Tuesday, in a private meeting with Jack Lew, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and others, House Appropriations Committee aide Bob Inglee put the kibosh on the agreement, telling Democrats they should reach a spending cut target by choosing from the menu of cuts included in the controversial House-passed continuing resolution — HR 1. The House-passed HR 1 includes more than $60 billion in cuts from existing spending, including to key liberal priorities like Title X, Social Security administration and others.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide confirms this account. A second Republican source says, “The Republican negotiating baseline was always HR 1 — which is the formal and approved position of the new House Majority and that was passed this year.”
In the intervening six days since the last meeting, there have been back-channel negotiations among the parties, which continue today. But the White House is unwilling to formally put forward its offer unless it believes Boehner will accept the top-line figure.
Even if Boehner does accept, there’s still a question of the cuts themselves. Republicans are suggesting they don’t want mandatory cuts in the mix at all. The source briefed on the negotiations would not discuss the precise breakdown of the package Democrats are prepared to offer, but said the White House position consists largely of discretionary spending cuts, with some non-Medicare, non-Medicaid mandatory spending cuts thrown in to reach the $32 billion figure.
All signs thus far suggest this will not fly. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have reverted to their earlier, harsher rhetoric, condemning Senate Democrats in official statements for not passing a plan of their own.
In a statement responding to this story, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel says, “We haven’t seen such a proposal. It’s been nearly 40 days since the House passed a long-term bill to cut spending and fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year, and the Democrats in the Senate still haven’t passed anything. The Senate needs to do its job and pass a bill.”
Even if this impasse is bridged, the three parties still haven’t addressed the question of policy riders — abortion restrictions, EPA authority and other issues — many of which Republican rank and file members want included in the final package.
That’s a lot to work out in a week and a half. And it’s a surprisingly stiff opening bid for House Republicans, who know full well they need a lot of Democratic buy in if they want to avoid a government shutdown. Let’s see if there’s a thaw.
Late update: To put a finer point on all this, Harry Reid issued a statement this afternoon saying the negotiations aren’t going anywhere.
I am extremely disappointed that after weeks of productive negotiations with Speaker Boehner, Tea Party Republicans are scrapping all the progress we have made and threatening to shut down the government if they do not get all of their extreme demands. The division between the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans is preventing us from reaching a responsible solution on a long-term budget that will make smart cuts while protecting American jobs, and prevented negotiations from taking place over the weekend even as the clock ticks toward a government shutdown. Apparently these extremists would rather shut down the government and risk sending our economy back into a recession than work with Democrats or even their own leadership to find a responsible compromise.
“For the sake of our economy, it’s time for mainstream Republicans to stand up to the Tea Party and rejoin Democrats at the table to negotiate a responsible solution that cuts spending while protecting jobs.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.