- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

As prospects for a government shutdown grow, the Obama White House has been largely absent from the political debate, issuing a veto threat to try on the Republicans’ spending-cuts bill but declining to offer publicly a counteroffer on what President Obama would be willing to accept.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday said the administration is respecting a process “that needs to take place on Capitol Hill.” Still, without the White House at the table, House Republican leaders and Senate Democratic leaders have been trading barbs through competing press conferences and statements, making little public headway on striking a deal.

“Americans won’t accept the job-destroying status quo, so we hope the White House will reveal, sooner rather than later, what spending — if any — they are willing to cut,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

At issue is the need to extend the federal government’s spending authority, which is set to expire March 4. The Republican-controlled House this past weekend approved a stopgap funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, which would last until the next fiscal year and cut $61 billion from current spending levels. Insisting that even a short-term measure must include spending cuts, GOP leaders have called on Democrats to back their trims to everything including border security and abortion funding.

But congressional Democrats have balked at the cuts, which they consider too deep and potentially harmful to the economic recovery. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada this week proposed a monthlong funding bill at current levels, which he and other Democrats said will give Congress time to hash out the full-year spending.

Democrats also signaled that they are willing to go deeper than a spending freeze, which they contend is already $41 billion less than Mr. Obama requested in his budget for 2011.

“We’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll go beyond the 2010 level and cut greater than $41 billion, but we have to negotiate on what to cut,’” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, a leading Democratic voice in the negotiations.

“We’re far apart, not on whether we should cut but on what we should cut,” he said. “And we’re saying, in the meantime, we’ll pass a stopgap measure to stop a government shutdown.”

A government shutdown in 1995 was widely seen as politically harmful to congressional Republicans. This time, each side this time is trying to blame the other.

House Republicans, who say Democrats are ignoring voters who repudiated them at the polls in November, are now drafting a two-week stopgap measure that would cut $4 billion from current spending levels, according to aides.

If the Democrat-controlled Senate fails to pass the House bill, “the House next week will pass a shorter-term bill to keep the government open that also cuts spending,” Mr. Boehner said in a statement Wednesday. “We will give Sen. Reid and his colleagues every opportunity to follow the will of the people we serve.”

Despite the standoff, Mr. Carney said, Mr. Obama thinks there is “strong potential” that the parties can reach an agreement to avoid a government shutdown. But lawmakers looking to the White House for a way out of the impasse could be out of luck.

The Obama administration’s public involvement has been limited to a vague veto threat in which it threatened to block any bill that “undermines critical priorities or national security.” In that statement, the White House stressed that it is committed to cutting spending, but didn’t give any details about what kinds of rollbacks the administration could support.

Mr. Obama’s budget director, Jacob “Jack” Lew, told reporters last week that the administration’s approach is to draw the outlines for a bill, not to dictate its content. He also declined to give a total dollar amount for cuts that the White House could stomach.

“I don’t want to say flat-out there’s a number, and in fact that statement was not written in a way that drew a line on a number, it really drew a line on the consequences,” Mr. Lew said at a lunch sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “The president has said we don’t have the only set of answers, we’re open to suggestions, and we’re not saying, hard and fast, a budget that deviates in any way from what we proposed is unacceptable. But there has to be a boundary, and if a bill crosses the line, the president indicated that’s a problem.”

Asked Wednesday to comment on the White House’s role in negotiations on Capitol Hill, Mr. Carney noted that leaders from both parties had been to the White House recently, but added, “I don’t want to give you a play-by-play of our meetings.”

 Republicans said the White House has not had any substantive involvement in the discussions, though with Democrats controlling the Senate the administration could be leaving its negotiating position up to Democratic leaders there. Still, that means that the White House would end up having to accept whatever bill emerges from Capitol Hill.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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