WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden reported "good progress" Wednesday in budget talks to prevent a government shutdown next week as congressional negotiators began work on a proposal for around $33 billion in spending cuts over the next six months -- considerably less than tea party activists demanded.
"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.
Under Biden's math, the White House is conceding $73 billion in cuts from Obama's requests, which contained increases never approved by Congress. Republicans originally wanted $100 billion in cuts using the same gauge.
Some tea party-backed GOP lawmakers want the original $100 billion. With a tea party rally set for Thursday on Capitol Hill, it's unclear how many of the 87 freshmen Republicans elected last fall could live with the arrangement between top Democrats and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Both sides said the figure under consideration is tentative at best and depends on the outcome of numerous policy stands written into the bill. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said: "There's no agreement on a number for the spending cuts. Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to."
Biden agreed: "There's no deal until there's a whole deal."
Obama met Wednesday with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss the level of spending cuts that House Democrats might be willing to accept.
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.
It's not clear which proposals, known as "riders," the White House might accept, but those backed by Republicans would block the government from carrying out regulations on greenhouse gases, putting in place a plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and from shutting down mountaintop mines it believes will cause too much water pollution.
"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.
Biden was summoned to the Capitol by uneasy Democratic leaders concerned that the White House was showing too much early flexibility in the talks without obtaining firmer commitments from Boehner.
"The main reason to be here today is to make sure the Democrats in the Senate and the president and I are on the same page," Biden said. "We're on the same page."
On spending, some conservatives appear insistent on the full range of spending cuts, but others recognize that compromise is required to win Obama's signature and support from Democrats who control the Senate.
"Compromise on the subject of spending is a tough sell. It doesn't mean it's an impossible sell," said freshman Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. "There is a serious mandate to cut spending. Now having said that, I also live in a realistic world and I understand the dynamics involved in having one leg of a three-legged stool under our control."
Far bigger fights are ahead on a longer-term GOP budget plan that takes a more comprehensive approach to the budget woes. Also looming is a must-pass bill to allow the government to borrow more money to meet its commitments. Republicans hope to use that measure to force further spending cuts on the president.
"I don't believe that shutting down government is a solution to the problem. Republicans and Democrats need to work out a compromise," said Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H. "Let's get this over with and get on to the budget."
But Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who earlier warned that "It's time to pick a fight," wants party leaders to hang tough.
"You never get a second chance at making a first impression," Pence said. "Our first impression with the American people needs to be that we kept our word and we found the budget savings that we promised to find. I'm still cautiously optimistic that we're going to do just that."
The talks are between the members and staff of the House and Senate appropriations committees, who understand the details of the legislation better than the leadership offices that so far have conducted most of the negotiations.
"I'm glad that we're beginning to have some conversations," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. "We hope to make them fruitful. We don't want a shutdown, so we'll do the best we know how."
Last month, House Republicans passed a measure cutting more than $60 billion from the $1.1 trillion budgeted for such programs last year. All the cuts came from domestic programs and foreign aid, which make up about half of the pot. Senate Democrats said that was too extreme and they killed the plan, citing cuts to education, health research, food inspection and other programs and services.
In a gesture aimed at winning the public relations battle, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the House would consider legislation Friday that automatically would enact the GOP's original measure unless the Senate passed a yearlong spending bill by next Friday's midnight shutdown deadline.