Fuzzy government shutdown math: Are cuts worth $33 billion or $73 billion?

Democrats say they're close to a compromise deal to avoid a government shutdown that includes $73 billion in cuts. Republicans say the plan cuts only $33 billion, and it's not enough.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.

As if the Washington politics of a potential government shutdown isn't confusing enough, now Congress is throwing a healthy helping of math at the American people – and it's all rather fuzzy.

President Obama says Democrats have agreed to $73 billion in spending cuts for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, and that this is the same target Republicans have set.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner says the Democrats are calling for $33 billion in cuts, and that his party hasn't agreed to that or any other number.

And what about the whole Republican "Pledge to America" during the election campaign to cut $100 billion from spending this fiscal year?

What do any of these numbers mean for the attempt to avoid a government shutdown Friday?

First off, the two numbers being bandied about in Washington this week – $33 billion and $73 billion – are really the exact same number, but reached through different accounting methods.

The spending plan being touted by Democrats would be $73 billion lower than what Mr. Obama had forwarded in his 2011 budget proposal, which was never passed by Congress. Looked at another way, it is $33 billion lower than current spending levels.

On Tuesday, Obama said he was willing to bargain around this number. "We are now closer than we have ever been to getting an agreement. There’s no reason why we should not get an agreement," he said in a press conference. "As I said before, we have now matched the number that the Speaker originally sought."

Mr. Boehner says he's never agreed to that number – but that's where the $100 billion Pledge to America comes in, and the math gets complicated.

When Republicans took control of the House in January, lawmakers arrived arrived primed to make good on their promise of $100 billion in cuts. But they needed to settle on exactly what that target meant.

Congress had never enacted an official budget for fiscal year 2011. The House Republicans framed their goal as cutting $100 billion from Obama's budget request for the year. That would equal about a $62 billion cut in actual spending.

One plan put forward by Boehner and Republican leadership proposed $32 billion in actual spending cuts. Since the fiscal year was already about half over, that plan would effectively cut at the targeted pace, but prorated for the amount of time remaining in the fiscal year.

But that plan was quickly shot down by rank-and-file Republicans sent to Washington to make a bigger statement. Some sought the full $100 billion in cuts from Obama's budget request (the $62 billion in cuts to actual spending).

So for many House Republicans, the compromise figure endorsed by Obama – no matter how its stated – is some $30 billion of so short of their goal. As a result, Boehner has refused to endorse the number publicly but has instead said only that House Republicans "are going to fight for the largest cuts possible."

That leads into another point of contention: the quality as well as the quantity of any cuts.

Obama and Senate leaders say they are meeting Boehner halfway. But Republicans argue that Democrats are offering cuts that involve accounting "smoke and mirrors" or are one-time cuts that don't pave the way for any longer-term savings.

"We’ve made clear that Democrats’ $33 billion proposal is not enough, and much of it is based on gimmicks," Boehner said Tuesday.

Whatever the number, the sparring revolves around a small slice of all federal spending, which tips $3.8 trillion. But to both sides, the outcome is symbolically important, since it sets the tone for the larger debate about future budget years and potential revamping of entitlements such as Medicare.

Congress has so far passed "continuing resolutions" to temporarily fund the government as it attempts to iron out the 2011 spending plan. The current continuing resolution expires Friday.

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