The Washington Times - March 4, 2011, 09:08AM

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. walked out of Thursday’s high-stakes negotiations to stop a government shutdown and said the conversations will continue — but he won’t actually be part of them since he leaves this weekend for major negotiations with European leaders.

President Obama on Wednesday tapped Mr. Biden, his “sheriff” on the stimulus, to lead negotiations with Congress, though Mr. Biden already had a prearranged trip scheduled to visit Finland, Russia and Moldova next week.

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The White House dismissed worries about his absence, saying it would not be an impediment.

“There’s no question that our entire budget team stands ready to talk, negotiate, work non-stop starting now to get this done within the two-week CR, if it’s possible,” said Gene B. Sperling, Mr. Obama’s top economic adviser, as he briefed reporters at the White House ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

After Democrats said he needed to get more involved in the spending negotiations, Mr. Obama on Wednesday said he would send a high-level team up to begin talking with congressional leaders about a way to finish the 2011 spending bills, which Democrats left undone at the end of the last Congress.

Mr. Biden, who served more than two decades in the Senate before being elected vice president on Mr. Obama’s ticket, convened the first meeting Thursday evening in his ceremonial office.

The leaders emerged after an hour saying nothing about how it went. A short time later, Mr. Biden’s office issued what all had agreed would be the only statement made.

“We had a good meeting, and the conversation will continue,” the vice president said.

Beginning Monday, Mr. Biden will be in Finland, followed by stops in Russia and Moldova. The White House announced the trip two weeks ago, saying the vice president, who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for part of his time in the Senate, will talk about areas of mutual interest with those countries’ leaders.

In his wake, Congress and the White House will continue to try to avert a March 18 government shutdown.

The House has already passed a bill to fund the government and cut $61 billion below 2010 spending levels, but the White House has so far only offered to cut a little more than $10 billion from 2010 levels.

And the two sides don’t even agree on the baseline number for evaluating cuts. The White House said it wants to use Mr. Obama’s proposed 2011 budget as the benchmark — a benchmark House Republicans themselves used, up until several weeks ago, when they switched and instead talked about actual 2010 spending.

Using Mr. Obama’s proposed budget as the benchmark lets the White House argue that it’s already halfway to House Republicans’ cuts, while using the 2010 spending the White House is only one-sixth of the way there.