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Parties in Congress still far apart on spending cuts

A top Senate Democrat says there has been progress in talks to avoid a government shutdown, but Republicans seeking deep budget cuts disagree.

March 25, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A top Senate Democrat said Friday that progress was being made in closed-door negotiations to resolve the budget impasse in Congress, but a government shutdown is at risk if an agreement over wide disparities is not reached in a matter of weeks.

Democrats are expected to propose a package of spending cuts they believe would be acceptable to Republicans, below the $61 billion in reductions the GOP-led House has sought. Congress seeks to avoid further stopgap measures and fund the government for the remaining six months of the 2011 fiscal year.

But Democrats want to look beyond the narrow slice of domestic discretionary programs that have been targeted by the GOP. Such programs make up just 12% of the budget.

It is unclear whether Republicans would agree, in the closed talks, to cuts in such mandatory programs as agricultural subsidies, health or Medicare programs.

"We are making some progress on the budget right now," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the MSNBC show "Morning Joe." "We've moved up.… They're moving down."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called Schumer's comments "completely farfetched."

He said the White House and Democratic leaders were "refusing to offer any sort of serious plan for how to cut spending."

Congress will resume on Monday after a weeklong recess during which negotiators from the offices of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), along with the White House, have been engaged in talks.

"If they have a plan, what is it?" Boehner said.

Unable to agree on acceptable reductions in spending for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, Congress has passed a series of temporary measures to avoid a government shutdown.

Both sides want to prevent a disruption in government services, which would occur if an agreement is not reached by April 8, when the current stopgap measure expires.

Because almost any package would face some opposition, an agreement would need to emerge soon to allow debate time under House and Senate rules.

Mindful of voter unrest over Washington's fiscal deficits, House Republicans have been reluctant to move from their starting position, which would have meant one of the largest one-time spending cuts of its kind.

Democrats have agreed to $10 billion in cuts made in the stopgap measures. But the two sides remain $50 billion apart.

Settling on about $30 billion in reductions would provide apparent common ground; that was the amount Republican House leaders proposed before the conservative wing of the House insisted on steeper reductions.

Also still at issue are nearly 100 amendments House Republicans attached to their bill — including those that would eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, gut the Environmental Protection Agency and defund President Obama's healthcare law.

Democrats in the Senate rejected those provisions but appear willing to accept less controversial ones.

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