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Friday, April 8, 2011

Shutdown Near, No Sign of Compromise

Negotiations to avert a federal government shutdown went down to the wire Friday, as a sense of crisis engulfed Capitol Hill and leaders of the House and Senate traded angry accusations about what was holding up a budget deal to keep federal agencies open after financing expires at midnight.


Philip Scott Andrews/The New York Times
House Speaker John Boehner spoke on Capitol Hill in Washington on Friday.
Mike Theiler/Reuters
Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, center, joins fellow Democratic senators on Republican attempts to introduce women's health issues like Planned Parenthood and abortions into the budget negotiations on Friday.
Yet even as Republicans and Democrats went before banks of television cameras to blame one another for the first lapse in government services brought on by Congress in 15 years, senior aides continued to negotiate over the sticking points. Knowledgeable lawmakers and top aides, both publicly and privately, said there was still an opportunity to strike an 11th-hour compromise.
“Both sides are working hard to reach the kind of resolution Americans desire,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, who has consulted closely with House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio on strategy. “A resolution is actually within reach. The contours of a final agreement are coming into focus.”
Still, time was slipping away, and testy leaders of the two parties were pushing hard to shape public perceptions of who was responsible for an impasse that threatened to have serious political repercussions — and to presage even more consequential fiscal showdowns in the months ahead.
After the nightlong negotiations that ended before dawn on Friday yielded no agreement, Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and majority leader, went on the offensive. He told reporters and said on the Senate floor that Mr. Boehner, the Senate Democrats and President Obama had essentially settled on $38 billion in cuts from current spending. But he said that Republicans were refusing to abandon a policy provision that would withhold federal financing for family planning and other health services for poor women from Planned Parenthood and other providers.
“This is indefensible, and everyone should be outraged,” Mr. Reid said on the Senate floor. “The Republican House leadership have only a couple of hours to look in the mirror, snap out of it and realize how truly shameful they have been.”
In a terse statement of his own to reporters, Mr. Boehner said there was “only one reason we do not have an agreement yet, and that is spending.” He asked, “When will the White House and when will Senate Democrats get serious about cutting spending?”
The dueling characterizations of the negotiations added to the frustration, extending far beyond the capital city, among federal employees and the people who rely on their services, as they wait to find out whether serious disruptions are imminent, and how long they might last.
Despite the disagreement over what still divided the two parties, it was clear that the dollar difference had shrunk to only about $1 billion or $2 billion, and that lawmakers would have a difficult time explaining to voters how most of the federal government could come to be closed over such a relatively small sum.
Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said he was embarrassed. “People across Virginia cannot understand why we can’t get this done,” Mr. Warner said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, meeting on Friday with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi after a trip to Baghdad, made a grim joke about the budget crisis in the capital. "You know how things are in Washington when you’d rather be in Iraq," he said.
Allies of Mr. Boehner said he seemed to be following a strategy of pushing the negotiations to the last possible tick of the clock to appease rank-and-file conservatives, who have been very reluctant to give an inch from the $61 billion in cuts approved by the House.
In a private party meeting Friday afternoon, Mr. Boehner told Republican lawmakers that he was continuing to fight for all the cuts he could get, and regaled them with reports of how angry President Obama was with him for the hard line he has taken in the talks.
Emerging from the meeting, Mr. Boehner called the negotiations “respectful,” but added: “We’re not going to roll over and sell out the American people like has been done time and time again in Washington.”
Mr. Boehner again urged the Senate to pass a temporary House budget resolution that would finance the military for the balance of the fiscal year, cut $12 billion in spending from the current year’s budget and keep the rest of the government operating for another week, as Republicans in the House have voted to do.
“This is the responsible thing to do,” he told reporters.
Senate Democrats have rejected that approach as a gimmick, and President Obama has said he would veto it. Mr. Reid told reporters at the Capitol on Friday morning that the Senate would explore the possibility of a stop-gap bill that would keep the government open for another week but it was unlikely to clear procedural barriers.
Senior Congressional officials said that the negotiations in the Capitol ended about 3 a.m. Mr. Obama late on Thursday had urged negotiators to reach a deal in the morning if possible so the government would not have to put into motion the machinery of a shutdown.
Officials said that Democrats had made concessions on both money and policy, moving toward the position of Mr. Boehner on the overall level of spending, with less of it coming from the Pentagon than Democrats had initially sought.
Democratic officials familiar with the negotiations said that attempts to resolve the disagreement through alternatives like allowing a separate floor vote on the Planned Parenthood issue had not been successful. Democrats said they were told by the Republicans that the votes of anti-abortion social conservatives would be needed to move any budget measure through the House.
Republicans said that no final agreement on money had been struck, and that both policy and spending issues were causing the impasse.
“The largest issue is still spending cuts,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, said Friday morning.

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