Top Budget Negotiators Reach Deal in Principle, but Snags Remain

Washington – Congressional budget negotiators, racing to avoid a Saturday morning government shutdown, agreed in principle on spending numbers, but a final deal was still delayed by disagreement over social-policy issues, Senate Democratic leaders said Thursday.

“The numbers are basically there,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Democrats wouldn’t give any precise numbers.

Democrats had offered to cut $33 billion over the final six months of this fiscal year; Republicans, who originally sought $61 billion, sought $40 billion going into the final talks.

House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wouldn’t go as far as the Democrats in characterizing the state of negotiations, saying, “There’s still a disagreement over making real spending cuts.”

But the biggest stumbling block to a final agreement, insiders said, were disagreements over social policy changes that Republicans want included in the legislation. The biggest controversies involve whether to bar federal funding for environmental programs championed by Democrats, as well as for Planned Parenthood, which counsels women on health and pregnancy issues.

President Barack Obama was to meet with Reid and Boehner early Thursday afternoon to try to iron out a deal to keep the government funded through Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year.

While Boehner insisted there was no agreement yet, his tone at a midday Thursday news conference was upbeat. He joked with photographers about how many more pictures they could possibly need of him in a suit, and joked with a reporter about why his voice was always so loud.

The government will run out of money at midnight Friday, forcing many federal services to shut down, unless an accord is reached and passed by Congress.

While the negotiators met, the House took its own partisan step to keep the government open. The House planned to vote early Thursday afternoon to continue funding for a week. Its plan, expected to be supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, would cut $12 billion from this year’s spending, but keep the Pentagon funded for the entire fiscal year.

Obama issue a statement saying that if the GOP measure passed — extremely unlikely because Senate Democrats plan to block it — he would veto it.

That measure includes $515.8 billion in defense spending, a 2.9 percent reduction from Obama’s original proposal, but a 1.5 percent increase over last year’s level.

It also contains $1.4 billion in cuts to agriculture programs from last year. It would slash $149 million from federal law enforcement construction and $139 million from NASA construction projects, and would phase out the space shuttle.

It would reduce State Department/foreign affairs operations funding by $832 million, including $466 million in foreign assistance, and $237 million from United Nations and peacekeeping activities. It would cut transportation and Housing and Urban Development programs by nearly $2 billion, of which $1.5 billion would be cut from High Speed Rail Corridors and Intercity Passenger Rail Service Capital Assistance.

Tensions over 2011 funding spilled onto the House floor Thursday as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., argued over which party is to blame for the federal government’s fiscal condition.

Hoyer called the GOP short-term funding plan a political ploy, arguing that Obama wouldn’t sign a bill with the Planned Parenthood and environmental terms.

Getting the bill through the House “won’t matter because it’s dead anyway, and you know it’s dead,” Hoyer said.