Congress gave itself a three-week reprieve on a government shutdown, then spent the first 10 days on vacation. Now, lawmakers return with the shutdown deadline once again looming, and a deal seemingly as far away as ever.
The House has spent more than 70 hours debating spending this year, and has produced a bill. The Senate has spent less than five hours officially debating spending, and has rejected the House bill, but has yet to produce an alternative of its own.
With another shutdown deadline looming -- this time on April 8 -- the negotiations have yielded little.
"After days of positive negotiations, with significant flexibility shown by the speaker, the House Republican leadership is back to agonizing over whether to give in to right-wing demands that they abandon any compromise on their extreme cuts," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Friday, putting the blame on House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
Democrats prefer to negotiate a final deal behind closed doors and have all lawmakers jump together, rather than have an open process and write a bill on the Senate floor.
Mr. Boehner, after initially agreeing to negotiations with Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Democrats, now argues that Senate Democrats must put forward a plan of their own to match up to the bill the House passed after days of debate and voting.
A Washington Times analysis shows that the House has indeed done far more work on spending than the Senate.
So far this year the House has spent 72 hours and 42 minutes officially debating spending bills, and held 107 votes that covered amendments from both Democrats and Republicans, including rules for debate and final passage of two stopgap spending bills and a measure known as H.R. 1, the GOP's chief spending-cuts proposal.
The Senate, meanwhile, has spent just four hours and 21 minutes officially debating spending bills, and has held just four votes. Two of those were on stopgap spending bills, while the other two were held to reject both the House bill and a White House-backed alternative.
"It has now been 34 days since the House passed H.R. 1," Mr. Boehner said Friday. "At no point in the 34 days since the House acted have the Democrats who run the Senate and the White House put forward a credible, long-term plan to resolve their budget mess."
And as if the problem wasn't already acute enough, lawmakers are now eyeing the ongoing conflict in Libya and wondering how it will affect the debate.
The White House has repeatedly declined to give a cost figure for operations so far or to estimate costs over the next weeks and months, though press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Friday that there is money already built in to cover expenses.
Capitol Hill, though, is less convinced.
"Estimates are that about $1 billion has already been spent on an undeclared war in Libya. Some would say only hundreds of millions, and that that will diminish in the days ahead. But who knows how long this goes on, and, furthermore, who has really budgeted for Libya at all?" Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" program Sunday.
"I have not really heard the administration come forward saying that we're going to have to devote these funds, folks. And, therefore, something else will have to go or it simply adds to the deficit."
Democrats last year controlled all the levers of government but failed to pass a budget or any of the dozen spending bills required to fund basic government operations in fiscal year 2011, leaving the bureaucracy reliant on short-term stopgap funding instead.
With Republicans now in control of the House and Democrats still in control of the Senate, lawmakers have been in a stalemate over funding through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
House Republicans want deep cuts, and the broad bill they passed included $61 billion in reductions. Senate Democrats balked at that.
Both chambers, in the two most recent stopgap spending bills, have agreed to $10 billion in cuts or rescissions from 2010 spending levels.
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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