Partisan sniping has invaded the budget talks once again on Capitol Hill. It always happens as negotiations over any legislation get tougher and deadlines rage up in the rearview mirror. Republicans are blaming big-spending Democrats; Democrats are blaming Republicans too beholden to the Tea Party (their words, not mine), each trying to get on the right side of the blame game.
As staffers to the House and Senate Appropriations Committee chairmen worked with top leadership aides through the weekend to hunt for $33 billion in spending cuts, and with a Friday deadline for a government shutdown looming large, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, blasted out a biting statement Monday afternoon indicating a deal is far from close.
"It's become sadly evident to me, and to the American people, that the White House and Senate Democrats are just not serious yet about enacting real spending cuts," Boehner said. "If the government shuts down, it will be because Senate Democrats failed to do their job."
With the two sides struggling to secure a long-term compromise, House GOP leadership Monday night was preparing a new short-term, stopgap spending measure to keep the government running past Friday.
The latest stopgap measure is described as "more aggressive" than past measures, as it will seek $12 billion in cuts while approving spending for just one more week. And it will propose securing Pentagon funding for the rest of the fiscal year, which would take a major component of federal spending off the table.
On Tuesday, the speaker is to travel to the White House to meet with the president, together with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Calif., something Republicans have been requesting for weeks as Congress appeared stuck in a budget impasse quagmire.
At about the same time Boehner fired off his statement, Rogers had his own which took direct aim at Reid.
"While we have made some progress - and hope to continue to do so - we cannot and will not falter in our commitment to concrete spending cuts that will start the downward trajectory of federal budgets for years to come," Rogers said. "However, Senator Reid is attempting to abuse the budget process and limit the ability of Appropriations negotiators to complete their work - dictating the use of gimmicks and phony accounting to sneak more spending through the Congress and by the American people.
Reid fired back. The House GOP leadership, he said, "has to decide whether it will do what the Tea Party wants it to do or what the country needs it to do. I'm hopeful they'll make the right choice and we can come to a timely agreement."
But a senior Democratic Appropriations Committee aide said talks are still going on, as planned. And a senior Senate GOP leadership aide said he thought the House GOP comments were possibly just bluster to show strength to the conference. But much is likely to be known after a Monday night House GOP conference meeting, followed by another Tuesday morning meeting, before Boehner's White House meeting.
A senior Democratic aide close to the talks said the most striking disagreement, at this point, is about a fundamental approach to cutting, whether to take from the mandatory side of the budget or the discretionary side. A senior Senate GOP aide agreed.
Democrats have targeted $7.5 billion in discretionary cuts, already, that Republicans could possibly accept, but Democrats are also looking for an equal amount from mandatory spending, from items like agriculture and military construction spending. A senior GOP aide tells Fox that Republicans have balked, so far.
But Rogers is likely talking about spending cuts known by their acronym, CHIMPS, or changes in mandatory program spending. Both parties have used this technique, whereby appropriators simply snatch up one year's worth of mandatory program spending that has been authorized, and instead of appropriating the money, they count it as a savings. Problem with that, it does not change the baseline budget number, so it does not technically reduce the deficit. (The budget assumes that spending is coming right back the next year.)
And Republicans appear to have used CHIMPS in their $61 billion in spending cuts passed earlier this year, $10.3 billion worth, according to a nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) document obtained by Fox. Democrats put their own in a CR Inouye crafted earlier this year, but failed to gain approval in the Senate. Still, it appears there is about $8 billion in overlap between the two bills. That, added to the $7.5 billion in discretionary cuts Democrats have already offered, brings the total of cuts to about $25.5 billion, including the $10 billion Congress has already approved. That is, if they were to be accepted.
That still leaves appropriators $8 billion short. Democrats, according to the senior Democratic aide, want the remainder to come from mandatory cuts, but Republicans do not appear likely to agree to that.
It might take the President, this time, to get the legislative train back on the tracks.
One thing is clear, time is quickly running out. "The window in which we can avoid the terrible consequence of a shutdown is closing quickly. It's no longer measured in months or weeks. We're now down to a few days in this deadline," Reid warned Monday in a Senate floor speech. "The time time we have to get legislation started is really measured in hours. Disagreement remains on where to make those cuts. We worked through the weekend to bridge the gap. We've made some progress. We're not where we should be yet."
Time to avert a government shutdowon can be measured in hours thanks to a House GOP-approved reform to the legislative process. Answering howls of discontent from members and their constituents that bills were rushed the floor in the past and approved before lawmakers had even read the legislation, House Republicans approved a so-called "72-hour rule," which simply says that any legislation must first be available online for 72 hours before it can be voted on in the chamber.
That means a deal must be found by Tuesday night, a very high hurdle, or the leaders must try to cobble together a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government running. Republicans aides say that measure must also contain spending cuts, but even that might not be enough to convince the scores of Tea Party-backed GOP lawmakers in the House who have sworn off any more mini-CR's. That could leave Speaker Boehner needing Democratic support, and plenty of it, in the end.