Obama fails to end budget standoff
Reporting from Washington— A White House budget summit Tuesday failed to resolve a standoff over spending cuts needed to avert a government shutdown by the end of the week, increasing the stakes for the president and Congress as the time to reach agreement dwindles.
President Obama inserted himself into the escalating showdown even as White House officials tried to shield him from blame that polls indicate would fall on all sides if government services were disrupted.
"There's no reason why we should not get an agreement," Obama said during a rare, unannounced appearance at the White House briefing room after the nearly 90-minute meeting with congressional leaders. "Everybody has got to make some sacrifices. Everybody has got to take a haircut. And we've been willing to do that."
Congressional Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on the scope of a proposed $33-billion package of domestic program cuts for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Faced with mounting "tea party" resistance, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has rejected the reductions as inadequate and called the Democrats' proposal "smoke and mirrors."
According to a senior administration official, Boehner said at the White House meeting that he wanted what amounted to $40 billion in cuts.
That surprised White House aides, who believed Boehner had accepted the $33-billion number, at least if details could be hammered out. Boehner has repeatedly said there was no agreement.
"We're coming down to the home stretch and he decided to move the finish line out," said the White House official, who requested anonymity to speak more candidly about ongoing budget negotiations.
Boehner's office refused to comment on the $40-billion figure, which could be more acceptable to balking Republicans. But deeper reductions could cost vital Democratic votes.
"We're going to fight for the largest cuts possible — real cuts," Boehner said. "We've made clear that Democrats' $33-billion proposal is not enough, and much of it is based on gimmicks."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) emerged from the White House meeting doubtful an agreement could be reached by Friday. "I'm not very optimistic," he said.
"The tea party is driving what goes on in the House of Representatives, and we cannot do what they want done," he said, accusing Republicans of "moving the goal posts."
Afterward, Boehner invited Reid back to his office for an afternoon session. They met alone for about 30 minutes in the speaker's chambers off the Capitol rotunda.
Aides to both said that the meeting was productive and that talks continued.
Obama said he would invite them back to the White House on Wednesday if no deal was reached before then.
Boehner is under intense pressure not to compromise from his conservative flank — the overwhelming majority of the GOP-led House. He received hearty cheers during a closed-door meeting with rank-and-file lawmakers Monday night as he outlined his strategy for further reductions.
Many Republicans are refusing to budge from the House-passed $61-billion package of cuts — even though the measure failed in the Senate.
In settling on $33 billion, Democrats argue they have already met Republicans halfway and are poised to agree to reductions they had once considered extreme. Democrats say steeper cuts would drastically curtail vital education, healthcare and public works programs during the sluggish economic recovery.
They dismissed a last-minute House GOP stopgap proposal for $12 billion in cuts over the next week to keep the government running, and Republican leaders declined to schedule a vote. That proposal would be far beyond the $2-billion rate of weekly reductions in previous temporary measures.
The White House said it would not support another temporary funding measure as a way to extend negotiations. But a more modest stopgap measure appears increasingly likely if an agreement can be reached, although time is needed for the House and Senate to pass the legislation.
The GOP insists that a final agreement must include its policy priorities, such as defunding Obama's healthcare law and Planned Parenthood, and gutting the Environmental Protection Agency.
Democrats have suggested making both one-time and ongoing cuts in mandatory programs such as agricultural subsidies, summer school Pell grants and transportation projects. But Republicans want cuts taken from targeted programs.
The budget impasse could disrupt Obama's schedule. He was scheduled to appear Wednesday at a town hall meeting in the Philadelphia area, and later to speak at the 20th anniversary celebration of Al Sharpton's National Action Network.