A top Senate Democrat said Sunday that the $6 billion in additional spending cuts that his party offered is the limit Democrats can accept — drawing a line well short of Republicans' goal with less than two weeks to go before a government shutdown if the two sides can't agree.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said the $6 billion proposal, released Friday, has "pushed this to the limit" on domestic spending. That comment stands in sharp opposition to a House Republican bill containing an additional $57 billion in cuts below 2010 spending.
Meanwhile, the Senate's top Republican said his talks with President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. show that the White House is not serious about tackling longer-term spending challenges, making it difficult for Congress to work with the president.
Taken together, the short- and long-term budget fights show how tough it will be for lawmakers to find common ground on the single biggest issue facing them over the next six months.
Republicans said they haven't seen any commitment from the White House to talk about entitlement spending, which is the big driver of long-term deficits.
"I've had plenty of conversations with them. What I don't see now is any willingness to do anything that's difficult," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" program. "So far, I don't see the level of seriousness that we need."
The immediate test for lawmakers is to try to head off a March 18 shutdown by passing a long-overdue 2011 spending measure.
Democrats said Republicans are proposing cuts that are too deep in the near term, and that the House GOP's $57 billion in additional cuts would strike at education and science spending. Mr. Durbin told CBS that he and fellow Democrats are willing to find additional cuts beyond the $6 billion they proposed Friday, but it must come from non-domestic programs — leaving defense spending as the chief target.
"I think we've pushed this to the limit. To go any further is to push more kids out of school, to stifle the innovation which small businesses and large alike need to create more jobs, and it stops the investment in infrastructure, which kills good-paying jobs right here in the United States," Mr. Durbin said.
At some point this week, most likely Tuesday, the Senate will hold votes on the Republican and Democratic plans. Neither is likely to reach the 60 votes needed to pass, and that will send both sides back to the negotiating table.
But there is no clear path to agreement, and the two parties don't even agree on the starting benchmark for how to measure cuts.
Senate Democrats argue that the House bill undercuts border security efforts, and that the proposal they released Friday funds border spending above the House GOP and Mr. Obama's initial requests.
Among Democrats' cuts are a rescission of $600 million from the Forest Service's wildland firefighting money and a cut of $1 billion from the General Services Administration, which oversees government buildings.
Senate Democrats argue that their $6 billion in additional cuts should be calculated on top of the $4 billion in reductions Mr. Obama signed into law last week and $41 billion in new spending Mr. Obama asked for last year but that Congress never accepted. That amounts to $51 billion less spending than the president had called for a year ago.
Yet compared with 2010 levels, Republicans said, Democrats support just $10 billion in cuts: the $4 billion plus the newly proposed $6 billion. That's just one-sixth of what Republicans are willing to take.
"Dick says everything has to be on the table, but under their plan, nothing's on the table," said House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican.
Either way, both parties are talking about slight reductions compared with the overall size of spending. Discretionary spending is projected to reach $1.28 trillion in 2011, and overall spending, which includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and debt service, is projected to reach $3.82 trillion.
In the important public relations battle, Democrats think they have the upper hand, particularly after an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, taken in late February and released last week, found Americans generally opposed to taking on big drivers of deficits, such as Medicaid and Medicare.
Just 32 percent said they would be OK with trimming Medicaid funding, and just 23 percent said they would accept reduced spending on Medicare. Medicaid is the federal-state health program for the poor, while Medicare is the federal program open to everyone 65 and older.
Republicans, though, were powered to big wins in last year's election by tea party voters, who say the country's debt and deficits are unsustainable and who insist on deep cuts that begin now.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican and chairwoman of the House Tea Party Caucus, said tea party views span party ideology.
"The political left has been very afraid of the tea party movement, because it is not necessarily political. It's not Democrats or Republicans. It's made up of a very broad-based coalition," she said. "They believe that we're taxed enough already. The government shouldn't spend more money than what it's taking in."
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