Democrats, Republicans Appear To Step Back From Budget Brink

March 30, 2011

Frank James

Just days after it looked like the chances of a partial government shutdown of the federal government had grown significantly due to the failure of Democrats and Republicans to compromise on federal spending, Wednesday brought reports that Democrats and Republicans stepped away from the brink.

Progress towards an agreement on what the federal government would spend for the remainder of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 apparently came as both sides moved significantly toward each other.

Republicans who control the House and Democrats who run the Senate, along with the Obama White House, were apparently finding common ground somewhere around $33 billion in spending cuts.

Considering that House Republicans started out demanding $61 billion in cuts and Senate Democrats and the White House opened the bidding at zero but quickly raised that to $10 billion, negotiations, fitful as they've been, seemed to be bearing fruit.

But it was also clear from reports that for all the progress, no real agreement had actually been struck. One is necessary by next Friday, April 8, to prevent a a partial government shutdown.

Vice President Biden sounded upbeat after meeting with Democrats on Capitol Hill Wednesday evening.

The Associated Press reported:

"There's no reason why, with all that's going on in the world
and with the state of the economy, that we can't avoid a government shutdown," Biden told reporters after a meeting in the Capitol with Senate Democratic leaders.

The tentative split-the-difference plan would end up where GOP
leaders started last month as they tried to fulfill a campaign
pledge to return spending for agencies' daily operations to levels
in place before President Barack Obama took office. That
calculation takes into account the fact that the current budget
year, which began Oct. 1, is about half over.

The $33 billion figure, disclosed by a congressional aide
familiar with the talks and confirmed by Biden, who used a
measuring stick tied to Obama's budget instead of a current
spending freeze.

The number is well below the $60 billion-plus in cuts that the House passed last month, but it still represents significant movement by Senate Democrats and the administration after originally backing a freeze at current rates.

Besides spending cuts, House Republicans have also demanded the inclusion of some of the policy restrictions called "riders" as part of the agreement and there were indications that Democrats would accept some of them.

More from the AP:

A Democratic lawmaker familiar with discussions between members
of Congress and administration officials said the administration
has made it clear that some House GOP proposals restricting the
Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory powers would have to
make it into the final bill. In order to characterize the
administration's position, the lawmaker insisted on anonymity
because the discussions have been private.

But before rank and file Democrats grab their pitchforks and head to Washington, they should know that their leaders aren't folding on riders across the board.

The AP again:

"There are certain things we're just not going to do on riders,
even if we agree on everything else we're just not going to do
it,"' Biden said. In that category, Democrats insist, is the
greenhouse gas measure and riders crippling implementation of
Obama's health care law, cutting Planned Parenthood off of federal
support.

Meanwhile, House Republicans had evidently decided that if a satisfactory agreement with Democrats wasn't reached by April 8, they would take the extraordinary step of voting again on the $61 billion in cuts they already passed this year and, upon passing it the second time, consider it the law.

For a party that made strict adherence to the Constitution part of its appeal to Tea Party movement voters in the mid-term election, this approach would seem to have some flaws.

That was duly noted by even Senate Republicans. An excerpt from The Hill:

The plan was quickly derided by both Democrats and Senate Republicans, however, who responded by offering a civics lesson to their House colleagues.

"My reaction to that is ultimately the whole body including the executive branch has to sign on here or we're just whistling in the wind," Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said: "To be the law of the land, a bill has to pass the Senate and be signed by the president."

The Wall Street Journal provides a sense of the type of compromises each side was making:

If the two parties agree to cuts of about $33 billion from 2010 spending levels, Democrats would be accepting reductions of a magnitude almost unimaginable just two months ago, given that the party initially wanted to fund government operations in the current year at the same level it did in 2010.

Cuts of $33 billion would also be far less than House Republicans have approved, and it was unclear that the most fiscally conservative lawmakers would accept the compromise. When House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) proposed about $35 billion of cuts earlier this year, conservatives in his caucus rebelled and forced House leaders to rewrite their plan, raising the level of cuts to $61 billion below 2010 levels.

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