WASHINGTON – The White House on Tuesday pressed for $8 billion in immediate spending cuts as part of a four- or five-week stopgap measure to avoid a partial shutdown of the government and provide more time for talks on a longer-term bill to keep things going the rest of the budget year.
Press Secretary Jay Carney said President Barack Obama could accept immediate spending cuts of that size as the price for a measure about twice as long as Republicans currently support.
"We do believe that if $4 billion in cuts over two weeks is acceptable, that the $8 billion over four or five weeks is something that we could agree on," Carney said.
The White House move came as House Republicans brought up their measure to keep the government running for two weeks to buy time for the Republican House, the Democratic Senate and the Obama White House to try to reach agreement on legislation for the rest of the budget year. It's a relatively mild volley in a party-defined spending battle that promises to go on for months or years.
Republicans want to slash more than $60 billion from agency budgets over the coming months as a down payment on larger reductions later in the year, but are settling for just $4 billion in especially easy cuts as the price for the two-week stopgap bill.
The $4 billion would hit some programs that Obama has sought to terminate and others that have billions of dollars set aside for pet projects sought by lawmakers. That money's not needed since Republicans have banned earmarks for at least two years.
Carney also said Obama made a call to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to discuss the stopgap legislation.
Earlier on Tuesday, Boehner rebuffed suggestions by the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for a month-long measure.
"If there had been a conversation about this 10 days ago or two days ago, we might have had something to talk about." Boehner said. "But the fact is we were forced to move on our own."
Negotiations over a longer-term solution are likely to be very difficult as Boehner seeks to satisfy his 87-member freshman class — many of whom were elected with tea party support — but still manage to reach a deal with Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House.
"All of us know that cutting spending of Washington, D.C., never happens. And so to think that we're going to have significant cuts in spending levels — it's not going to be easy," Boehner told reporters. "I understand that. Senator Reid understands that. But I think all of us know that we are going to cut spending."
Tuesday's House measure would keep most federal agencies running at last year's spending levels through March 18, in line with two prior bills passed last year under Democratic control of Congress. The cuts include Army Corps of Engineers water projects, homeland security earmarks and $650 million claimed by not repeating a one-time injection of general fund money into highway programs.
Senate Democrats and the White House have reservations about the measure because it's clear it will take longer than two weeks to reach agreement on the broader spending bill and because the $4 billion in cuts over two weeks is the same pace as cutting $60 billion through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year.
"Providing only 14 days for all parties to resolve their differences on a full-year measure is not realistic," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "Setting up a shutdown crisis every two weeks disrupts the continuity of good government operations and long-term planning. It is not a responsible way to govern."
Democrats say the larger GOP measure would lead to the furlough of thousands of federal workers, pull money out of the economy and risk slowing the fragile recovery. The cuts are far more dramatic than attempted under prior GOP control of Congress, and would hit or eliminate hundreds of programs, including education, food inspection, health research, environmental regulation and public broadcasting, among many others.
At the same time, Republicans in the Senate have leverage that may prompt Democrats in the chamber to go along. Democrats control the Senate with 53 votes, but at least a handful advocate immediate spending cuts and appear unwilling to support a short-term spending bill at current levels.