- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2011

The White House offered its ante in the great spending-cuts debate, saying Thursday it’s willing to cut at least another $6 billion in spending this year — which stacks up against House Republicans’ $57 billion in cuts.

With a March 18 government shutdown looming, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. traveled to the Capitol to begin negotiations with House and Senate leaders over 2011 spending levels, but the two sides remain so far apart that they aren’t even using the same numbers on the size of the total budget and what it means to cut $102 billion from it.

“We had a good meeting, and the conversation will continue,” Mr. Biden said in a terse statement issued after he left the Capitol, where he declined to talk to reporters.

An hour before the meeting, the White House told reporters it is willing to accept an additional $6 billion in cuts from last year’s spending, though National Economic Council Director Gene B. Sperling and communications director Dan Pfeiffer batted back questions about what programs they would be willing to cut.

“I’d just say, stay tuned,” Mr. Sperling told reporters.

That stacks up against House Republicans, who have passed a bill laying out exactly where they would cut $61 billion from 2010 spending. Some $4 billion of those cuts was adopted in this week’s short-term spending measure, leaving Republicans with an additional $57 billion in specific cuts already on the table.

The congressional leaders who met with Mr. Biden — the top Democrat and Republican in each chamber — declined to comment after the meeting, instead saying they had agreed that Mr. Biden would speak for them all.

But hours before the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, didn’t sound optimistic about the prospects.

“Putting a meeting on the schedule doesn’t change the fact that neither the White House nor a single Democrat in Congress has proposed a plan that would allow the government to remain open and that would respond to the voters by reining in spending,” he said on the Senate floor.

Complicating matters, both sides disagree over the starting point for measuring cuts.

The White House and its congressional allies say it should be Mr. Obama’s 2011 proposed budget, which he submitted a year ago — though the Democrat-controlled Congress failed to adopt a budget or pass any of the dozen annual spending bills.

On that scale, they argue they’ve already accepted $45 billion in cuts, and are willing to go at least an additional $6 billion, to come to $51 billion. On that measure, they would be halfway to Republicans’ $102 billion in cuts below Mr. Obama’s proposed budget.

But the GOP, after initially using the $100 billion-plus measure, recently has switched its goalpost and now says the benchmark should be 2010 spending, which was some $41 billion below Mr. Obama’s proposal.

Compared to 2010 levels, Republicans want to cut an added $57 billion — the $61 billion in their bill, minus the $4 billion that’s already been signed into law. By comparison on that measure, Mr. Obama is now offering $6 billion.

Meanwhile, the House on Thursday took the first specific whack at last year’s health care law, passing a bill to repeal the controversial “1099” reporting requirements for small businesses that Republicans and Democrats now agree was an overreach.

But the way House Republicans proposed paying for the repeal by changing other parts of the health care law to recapture government overpayments soured Democrats, who said it amounts to a middle-class tax increase.

“Nearly every small-business person I meet says this is one of the most damaging provisions in the Obamacare law,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

The bill passed 314-112, with 76 Democrats joining Republicans in supporting it. All of the opposition came from other Democrats, who said requiring families to pay back government-subsidy overpayments at the end of the year could leave taxpayers facing an unexpected bill from the IRS totaling thousands of dollars.

“A tax increase is a tax increase is a tax increase on the middle class, on the middle class, on the middle class,” said Rep. Sander M. Levin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.