The 2011 budget stalemate is about to enter a new and politically perilous stage. While a shutdown of some duration isn't certain, time is running out, positions are hardening and the recent bipartisan willingness to indulge in face-saving gestures is entirely gone.
A week of negotiations involving the White House, Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have failed to narrow differences in spending cuts and policy differences. House Republicans still stand by $51 billion in cuts from the 2010 budget and demand that serve as the beginning point for negotiations — meaning anything less than it in terms of cuts or policy riders represents a GOP concession.
The White House and Senate Democrats oppose using the full GOP continuing resolution (CR) as a benchmark because it can't pass the Senate and, even if it did, would die under a veto that House Republicans couldn't override (they needed House Democratic votes, after all, to pass the last three-week stop-gap bill).
It's hard to know, precisely, the magnitude of spending cuts coming from Democrats. White House and Senate Democrats say they have offered up to $20 billion, while Republicans say all they've offered is about $7 billion in cuts (It may be a difference in policy accounting or GOP low-balling the Democrats). In either case, House Republicans consider both numbers insufficient.
The ill-will boiled to the surface on Friday, as House Republicans issued coordinated statements seeking to portray Democrats as unwilling to cut spending and lacking a serious plan to resolve the impasse.
"Washington Democrats continue to downplay the severity of their budget mess," Boehner said in a statement, referring to the Democrats' inability to pass a budget in the 111th Congress. "We weren’t sent here to negotiate with ourselves. Many questions remain, starting with: when it comes to cutting spending and keeping the government running, where are Washington Democrats? If they have a plan, what is it?"
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy amplified Boehner, alleging Democrats are spoiling for a shutdown showdown.
"It’s irresponsible for Democrats on the Hill and in the White House to continue pushing for the status quo of more spending while playing political games intended to shut down the government," McCarthy said in a statement.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded, also in a statement, that Boehner is a hostage to Tea Party-backed House Republicans who are unwilling to compromise.
“The House Republican leadership is back to agonizing over whether to give in to right-wing demands that they abandon any compromise on their extreme cuts," Schumer said. "The Speaker knows that when it comes to avoiding a shutdown, his problem is with the Tea Party, not Democrats. Instead of lashing out at Democrats in a kneejerk way, we hope House Republicans will finally stand up to the Tea Party and resume the negotiations that had seemed so full of promise.”
Senior House GOP aides sniffed that Schumer "is not directly involved in the CR negotiations" and that all questions about the actual state of budget negotiations should be referred to Reid. It's never a good sign when staff fights break out over who is or isn't in a room where negotiations are stalled or breaking down. Reid did not issue a statement characterizing the talks.
Amidst all the posturing, pressure is building on Boehner to press for policy riders passed during original consideration of the full continuing resolution but left out of the stop-gap bills accepted by Senate Democrats and the White House. House Republicans know they won't be able to use these budget negotiations to defund the 2010 health care law or block creation of new financial regulatory reform bureaucracies. But rank-and-file House Republicans want some policy victories and are looking at comparatively easy ones to be included in the final package — among them blocking movement of suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. for trial or tightening access to abortion in the District of Columbia.
But Senate Democrats and the White House are reluctant to move on House GOP policy riders and want to keep the eventual budget deal as "clean" (meaning devoid of policy riders) as possible.
If no deal is struck by Thursday, a shutdown or another CR is the only way out. House Republicans will not consider a bill that resolves the 2011 budget on an expedited basis — meaning it will require being available for three days before House action. A short-term measure could keep negotiations alive but no moves have been taken to write one and even if they were, House Republican say, they would have to include some policy riders — adding another layer of uncertainty.
There is less than one week to go and the differences on dollars and policy appear as pronounced as ever. And if both sides aren't moving a bill by April Fool's day, well ... the voters will decide who the budget fools really are.