Senate Democratic leaders, on a conference call Friday with reporters, said negotiators are on the cusp of a deal to fund the government beyond April 8 that would slice spending by $33 billion.
"I am happy to say that negotiations towards a compromise are moving forward," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "We will be working through the weekend to forge a compromise, and I hope that cooler heads continue to prevail as we work to make smart cuts."
"We are on the door step of a deal," Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, repeating the Democrats' latest message that the deal is there, as long as House Speaker John Boehner, D-Ohio, stays away from the "extreme" Tea Party Republicans in his conference, many who want deeper cuts. Both Schumer and number two Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said Boehner needs Democrats, instead, in order to craft a compromise that can pass muster.
"The American people would support a bipartisan approach," Durbin urged.
But GOP leaders have disputed that the two sides have finalized anything.
"There is no agreement on a number. We are going to fight for the biggest cuts we can get," Boehner said Friday. "We're continuing to talk. But it's time for the Senate to get serious. They need to get serious about cutting spending."
Senate Democrats have thumped the Tea Party for what they said was its intransigence on efforts to find a compromise to avert a shutdown, Reid, who had peered over his second floor balcony Thursday to observe the conservative group's diminutive rally, chided, "There were tens of them," and said Republican leaders should turn their back on the group.
Republicans leaders have dismissed Democrats' emphasis on the Tea Party as mere partisan talking points. Their plan would cut $61 billion, but Boehner said Friday that Republicans weren't interested in a shutdown.
"I've never believed that shutting down the government is a goal," he said. "The goal here is to cut spending. If you shut down the government, it ends up costing more than you save. It's not the goal. The goal is to cut spending."
Reid and Schumer both reiterated that cuts also need to go beyond the tiny portion of the budget the funds discretionary programs. "The cuts can't be all in domestic discretionary spending," the leader said, adding that only "a few more dollars" can be "squeezed" from that side of the budget. "We have to look at mandatory (programs)," the leader said.
The Pentagon should not go unscathed, either, Reid noted. "Clearly, Defense should help us arrive at the $33 billion figure we have here."
As for those controversial policy measures in the $61 billion House-passed spending bill, the so-called "riders," which Republicans have insisted be part of any deal, the leader said, "We'll have a full conversation about riders after we get the numbers agreed to." But the leader, largely disdainful of them, drew several lines in the sand. "There are some places we will not go," referencing the numerous riders related to the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as, efforts to defund the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and rescind funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (aka: National Public Radio, or NPR), a personal favorite of the majority leader.
In looking through the scores of policy riders, largely ideological measures, it is clear Democrats will find it difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to find some they can stomach. One prevents agencies from obligating funds in contravention of parts of the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996; another prohibits funds for the study of the Missouri River projects (long a serious fight, but a study can be re-funded later); still another dries up funds for any transfer of accused terrorists housed at the Guantanamo Bay prison. With many National Rifle Association (NRA) supporters in Congress, enough support might be found for the rider that stops federal funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) for collecting information on multiple sales of rifles or shotguns to the same person.
With just a week to go before the government runs out of money, Reid said lawmakers would only consider a short-term CR "if it's necessary to give us time to do paperwork." No buying time if there are genuine policy differences, in other words. It seems clear, though, that some of the riders must be adopted in order to strike a compromise, particularly if Speaker Boehner is to sell $33 billion in cuts as the best deal he and fellow Republicans could possibly get in a divided Congress.