What comes first, the negotiations or the plan?
With a government shutdown averted, at least for the time being, President Obama on Wednesday invited congressional leaders to sit down and hash out the rest of this year's spending bills — but Republicans said they have done their work and want to see Democrats put their own proposal on the table first.
The negotiations over how even to begin negotiations underscore how difficult it will be for Congress and Mr. Obama to reach an agreement before March 18, the new deadline for a shutdown after Congress on Wednesday passed a bill giving itself another two weeks to cut a deal.
Mr. Obama went first, just minutes after Congress completed work on a two-week spending bill, calling for a meeting between top negotiators to write a longer-term bill to finish out the current federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
"I'm calling on Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress to begin meeting immediately with the vice president, my chief of staff and budget director so we can find common ground on a budget that makes sure we are living within our means," Mr. Obama said in a statement.
But he immediately qualified the offer by saying he won't accept a bill that he deems tantamount to "gutting investments" in education or research.
But Republicans said that they have yet to get an actual invitation, and said the first step is for Democrats to write a bill to match up with the one House Republicans have already passed.
"How do you start a conversation where one house has spoken, but the other house hasn't?" said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. "Where is the starting point?"
Senate Democrats, who have yet to produce a spending bill this year, said they were working on some cuts and would submit their ideas to the White House, which would then produce an offer they would give to House Republicans.
"We need somebody from the White House directing this," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told reporters.
For the past two days, Mr. Reid has publicly begged the White House to take a more active role in drawing lines over the spending bill, saying the president needs to use his "bully pulpit" to push back against proposed GOP cuts.
Congress is already more than five months late on the spending bills for fiscal year 2011, which began Oct. 1. Democrats, who controlled all the levers of government last year, failed to pass any of the dozen annual funding measures.
House Republicans last month wrote and pushed through a bill to finish out the fiscal year, cutting $61 billion from 2010 levels. Realizing the Senate wasn't going to pass that before existing funding ran out March 4, the House passed — with strong bipartisan support — a bill to keep the government open through March 18, while cutting $4 billion.
On Wednesday, the Senate accepted that stopgap bill, voting 91-9 to pass it and send it on to Mr. Obama, who signed it in the afternoon.
"It is the first time I can recall, in the time that I've been here, our actually cutting spending on an appropriations bill. It's a small step, but a step in the right direction," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
But that bipartisanship doesn't extend to the broader spending cuts included in House Republicans' $61 billion funding reduction for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Mr. Obama has issued a veto threat on that bill, saying House Republicans' cuts are unacceptable, and Senate Democrats said the non-spending provisions of the bill — such as restrictions on Planned Parenthood and on Obama administration rules and regulations — will also have to be struck.
Mr. Reid pointed to two local Republican mayors in his home state of Nevada who said their cities would suffer under the cuts.
Administration officials also ramped up their pressure, with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warning that proposed cuts to her department will mean even longer waits at the airport for security checks.
And Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, testified to Congress on Wednesday that reducing government spending the way Republicans propose would hurt the economy and could lead to hundreds of thousands fewer jobs than would otherwise exist if Congress kept spending at the same rate as 2010.
In the meantime, Republicans found themselves suffering for their own semantics earlier in the debate.
GOP leaders contended that their $61 billion in cuts was actually $100 billion — which is true only when measured against Mr. Obama's proposal, which had called for increased spending.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney employed that same formula to argue that the president has already accepted $45 billion in cuts — because current spending is frozen $41 billion below the president's request and Congress just approved an additional $4 billion in cuts.
"We have come almost halfway already, we have met them halfway, which in many ways is the perfect definition of an attempt to compromise," he said.
Also Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill to extend federal highway spending through Sept. 30. That money had been slated to run out on March 4, but highway spending is popular among lawmakers, and they voted to extend it 421-4, with just three Republicans and one Democrat opposing the measure.
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