House and Senate leaders are closing in on common ground to avert a government shutdown next week, though the shifts are subtle and Congress remains far from declaring mission accomplished.
Without a deal on spending for the current fiscal year, the government shuts down after April 8.
Among the signs that the two sides are moving toward compromise:
• For the first time, Senate Democrats are publicly endorsing a target of $33 billion in spending cuts for the fiscal year 2011 spending bill that is now six months overdue. Previously, they had not endorsed any number remotely close to Republican demands. As recently as February, Senate majority leader Harry Reid had dubbed a GOP plan proposing $32 billion in cuts “draconian” and “unworkable.” Democrats had proposed no net cuts from 2010 spending levels.
• In a shift, House Speaker John Boehner acknowledged a point that Democrats have been making for months: that the House can’t impose its will on the Senate or the other branches of government. “We control one-half of one-third of the government here, but we’re going to continue to fight for the largest spending cuts that we can get to keep the government open and funded through the balance of this fiscal year,” he said.
• Senate Republicans unanimously backed a measure to establish a balanced-budget amendment – a sign that they could be looking to claim longer-term victories in exchange for short-term compromise on the current spending bill.
“We are in a much better place than we were two weeks ago,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York in a speech on the floor on Thursday. “The two sides are much closer than you might be able to tell from the public statements.”
Boehner 'not very interested' in abandoning tea party
On the House side, Speaker Boehner declined to confirm the $33 billion target. “There’s no agreement on numbers, and nothing will be agreed to until everything is agreed to,” he said in a press briefing on Thursday morning.
That includes controversial policy riders – spending limitations attached to spending bills. In their spending bill passed Feb. 19 – and voted down by the Senate – House Republicans included riders to defund President Obama’s signature health-care reform, strip the Environmental Protection Agency of authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood and NPR.
To find a working majority in the House, Boehner will either have to bridge differences with the 57-member House tea party caucus or reach out to moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats, who favor fiscal discipline but oppose some of the policy riders in the Feb. 19 House spending bill, which included $61.5 billion in cuts.
Asked if he was interested in leaving conservative colleagues behind and forming a coalition with Democrats, Boehner said he was “not very interested.”
Pushing for a balanced-budget amendment
GOP leaders say it will take many measures to build confidence with conservatives and the public that Congress is serious about changing its ways. Toward that end, the 47-member Senate Republican caucus unanimously endorsed a balanced-budget amendment to force lawmakers to “reverse the course of running unsustainable deficits.”
The measure requires the president to submit a balanced budget every year that limits outlays to 18 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), requires the Congress to limit spending to 18 percent of GDP, and requires a supermajority to raise taxes or increase the debt limit. Exceptions would be made for national defense emergencies.
Commenting at Thursday’s release of the balanced-budget amendment, Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee says that Republicans need to “negotiate the deepest cuts we possibly can” in the current spending dispute, establish a “statutory solution that can go into effect right away,” and “make sure over time we have something to anchor it – and that’s a constitutional amendment.”
The move is largely seen as symbolic at this point, since amendments to the Constitution require approval not only of two-thirds of both Houses of Congress, but also three-quarters of the states.
Meanwhile, tea party activists rallied on Capitol Hill today to urge Republican leaders to keep promises to restore fiscal discipline. Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana called it “a defining moment for the new majority in Congress.”
Even the $61 billion in cuts proposed by the Feb. 19 House bill “is nothing to write home about,” he told activists weathering a cold, drizzling rain. “But it’s a start…. And if liberals in the Senate would rather play political games and shut down the government instead of making a small down payment on fiscal discipline and reform, I say, ‘Shut it down.’ ”