In something akin to a political ping pong match, Democrats and Republicans spent Thursday alternately declaring they had - or hadn't - reached a deal on funding the federal government through the current fiscal year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., repeated Vice President Joe Biden's assertion that the two sides had at least agreed to a number, if not yet the details about what may be cut and what won't. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, quickly shot down Reid's statement, adamantly denying there was any deal at all.
Democrats continue to point the finger at the Tea Party, saying its members are holding the GOP hostage. "I appreciate Speaker Boehner's participation in these talks," Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday. "I'm sure it's not easy trying to negotiate with the Tea Party screaming in his right ear."
Count Boehner among those Republican leaders who say they welcome the Tea Party pressure and the way it's shaped the on-going debate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says Democrats have only themselves to blame. He accuses President Obama of skipping the funding debate altogether, and says Democrats are painting anyone who would challenge their plans as "an extremist." "If you're wondering where the Tea Party came from, look no farther than that," McConnell said.
Despite cold, wet weather in Washington Tea Partiers gathered on Capitol Hill Thursday - eager to remind GOP lawmakers of their campaign pledge to cut $100 billion from fiscal year 2011 funding. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., head of the House Tea Party Caucus, told attendees at the rally, "Cutting off funding for groups like Planned Parenthood has to be one of those issues that we're just not going to back down from."
Democrats say they'll fight that move. Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., calls plans to block Planned Parenthood funding "a vendetta." On the Senate floor Thursday she highlighted what she says is the organization's real mission. "They serve five million people and do cancer screenings and all the things necessary to help women's health."
"This is not the appropriate vehicle ... on which to stack a lot of contentious, ideological or politicized issues," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded.
There are many thorny issues lawmakers will have to settle on their way to reaching an agreement. Democratic leaders say they are prepared to offer a package that would cut $33 billion from funding that would keep the government operating through September 30th, but Republican are standing by the measure they passed containing $61 billion in cuts.
Without a new deal, government funding will expire on April 8th. The Senate has passed a measure that will cut salary payments to Members of Congress and the President if the government actually shuts down. There is a similar measure pending in the House as well.