House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), puts up a chart on… (J. Scott Applewhite / Los…)
Reporting from Washington — Battle lines over steep federal spending reductions hardened Sunday even as congressional leaders maintained that both Democrats and Republicans want to avoid a political impasse that could lead to a government shutdown within weeks.
Lawmakers fanned out to their home states after the Republican-led House approved more than $60 billion in reductions for fiscal year 2011, the deepest spending cuts in generations. Virtually no domestic program would be spared.
Democrats have rejected the legislation as too severe, warning that as many as 800,000 jobs could be lost by making such reductions in the remaining seven months of the fiscal year, harming the nation's fragile economic recovery. Instead, they propose a spending freeze, which Republicans reject.
With political leaders deadlocked, each side is trying to position the other for blame in the event the stalemate cannot be broken. After the predawn budget vote Saturday in the House, lawmakers left Washington for a weeklong recess. When they return, they'll have only a few days to resolve the issue before the current funding mechanism expires March 4.
"We know we need to cut spending," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a Senate Democratic leader, on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Now, the question is: How much further should we go? You can't reach a budget balance with 15 million Americans out of work."
Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, acknowledged the package engineered by the conservative flank in the House would not be approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"We will have to negotiate," Ryan said. "Look, we're not looking for a government shutdown but, at the same time, we're also not looking at rubber-stamping these really high, elevated spending levels" enacted two years ago.
The showdown is only the beginning of a long spring of budget battles at a time when the nation's $1.5-trillion deficit has sharply focused voter interest.
President Obama prefers to freeze spending for the next five years and begin discussions on adjusting corporate tax policies to bring in revenue.
But Obama's proposed 2012 budget was widely criticized by veteran budget hawks, including members of his bipartisan fiscal commission, for excluding reforms of the big-ticket mandatory spending programs. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, they insist, must be part of a debate.
Such topics are political hot buttons, and neither party has been interested in taking the lead on the entitlement reform debate.
House GOP leaders initially sent mixed messages before announcing last week that their budget proposal due out this spring would address entitlements.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader, urged the president to join the effort, lest Republicans be politically exposed on an issue the public has been wary to embrace.
"We are leading and will address our challenges head on, but one party in a divided government can't do it alone," Cantor wrote in a Politico op-ed Sunday.
During the week in their home districts, many lawmakers are bracing for constituent reactions to the Republican-passed budget package.
Although conservative "tea party" groups who fueled the GOP's ascent may not see the cuts as deep enough, advocacy organizations characterized the reductions as draconian attacks on long-running government programs – from water pollution monitoring to food aid for poor women and children.
The Service Employees International Union said 5 million meals now being delivered to elderly shut-ins would be eliminated.
Yet as Congress is being asked to again raise the federal debt limit, in a vote that could come in a matter of months, even Democrats acknowledged that their proposal to freeze current accounts would likely be inadequate in the current political climate.
Many Democrats would like to see compromise extended to the other side of the government ledger by reining in tax breaks for wealthy Americans and corporations, including the oil industry, as part of any deal that cuts spending.
"Cuts have to happen," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who faces a potentially tough reelection to a second term in 2012, said on "Fox News Sunday."
"What are the priorities here?" she asked. "Are we going to take a weed whacker to education funds in this country while we let millionaires continue to deduct interest on their second home?"
Crafting such a compromise remains a heavy lift in Washington. Republican leaders have said even a stopgap measure to avoid a shutdown must include reductions — cuts both sides would need to support for passage.