- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Democrats said Tuesday that in an effort to find a spending compromise that would keep the government from shutting down April 8, they are willing to look at some of the legislative add-ons House Republicans tacked onto their spending-cuts bill.

The dozens of “policy riders,” as they are called, include provisions to defund the Obama administration’s environmental and health care efforts, eliminate some of President Obama’s “czar” positions, and stop taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood.

Riders, many of them added by tea party-backed Republicans during four days of House debate last month, have become a central fight as the two sides try to hammer out a final agreement. The other sticking points are the overall dollar amount to cut, and whether those cuts come only from discretionary spending or also include mandatory spending.

“We’re happy to look at the policy riders. There aren’t many of them that excite me. But we’re willing to look at them. In fact, we’ve already started looking at some of the policy riders,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told reporters Tuesday, making the latest overture that has already seen Democrats promise to embrace spending cuts they balked at just months ago.

Mr. Reid said his party, backed by the White House, is prepared to accept cuts totaling about $30 billion below 2010 spending levels. House Republicans passed a bill that cut $61 billion from 2010 levels, and Democrats say the Republicans have yet to budge from that number.

They accuse Republican leaders of being held hostage by tea party-backed lawmakers, who are pushing for both the higher cuts and for many of the policy riders.

“But for the tea party, we could have a deal that keeps the government open,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, trying to drive a wedge between House Speaker John A. Boehner and his colleagues. “It is time for House Republican leaders to rip the Band-Aid off. Mr. Speaker, it’s time to forget the tea party and take the deal.”

Hours later, though, Mr. Schumer stepped on his own message when he was overheard at the beginning of a conference call coaching fellow Democrats to repeatedly call Republicans “extreme.”

“I always use the word ‘extreme’ — that is what the caucus instructed me to do the other week,” he said during the call, a recording of which was quickly posted online.

Mr. Boehner said Democrats should focus less on giving “marching orders” and try instead to reach an agreement. And he said Democrats will have to grapple with the policy riders.

“It’s just not cutting spending,” he said. “There are a number of limitations that passed the floor of the House. Every appropriation bill that’s moved through this House in the 20 years that I’ve been here has contained limitations.”

With a tea party rally planned in Washington on Thursday, their clout in the negotiations has come under scrutiny.

Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, who is viewed as a tea party bellwether, said the final dollar amount of cuts is less important than the policy riders - chiefly, that the bill strip out any money for implementing last year’s new health care law.

He said Republican leaders should make the fight entirely about health care, and force Democrats to shut the government down over that alone: “We provide all the resources for the government to function in [a bill], but no money for Obamacare.”

He said that scenario would make it clear to voters that Democrats are willing to shut the government down to protect the health care law.

Mr. King said Republican leaders are fighting, but they are not willing to risk a government shutdown in order to win their priorities — something Mr. King said he’s willing to gamble. He said Republican and Democratic leaders have wrongly concluded the only winner in a shutdown is the president, based on the outcome from the 1995 shutdown.

“There is a coming confrontation between the House majority and Barack Obama, and Harry Reid is a proxy for the president right now, and so is Schumer,” he said. “They would like to shield the president from taking the heat on this. So if Republicans decide that we’re going to avoid a shutdown, the net result will be the president of the United States will get everything he’s willing to fight for.”

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