Gov’t shutdown looms as Obama budget talks fail
WASHINGTON—The United States slipped closer to a government shutdown as President Barack Obama’s latest summit with the top Republican leader failed to cut a deal on spending ahead of a Friday deadline.
A stern-faced Republican House of Representatives speaker John Boehner said there was “no agreement on a number, no agreement on the policy issues,” after 90 minutes in the Oval Office with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“We are not there yet,” Boehner said, though adding that he believed an agreement was possible before a midnight Friday deadline at which government funding runs out and vast swathes of the bureaucracy will go dark.
The top Senate Democrat Harry Reid, who was also in the talks, said the four political heavy hitters would get together again at 7:00 p.m. (2300 GMT) Thursday to try and thrash out a deal to avoid temporary layoffs of 800,000 government workers.
The showdown on the scope and nature of huge spending cuts in last year’s budget, through to October 1, is the first big clash between Obama and the new Republican House elected in November, and has huge political ramifications.
As the maneuvering intensified ahead of Friday’s deadline, House Republicans voted through a stop gap spending bill including $12 billion in cuts that would avert a shutdown and take negotiations into another week.
But Obama threatened to veto the measure, should it reach his desk, arguing that it was a purely diversionary tactic to divert attention from the main focus of the high-stakes Oval Office talks.
“This bill is a distraction from the real work that would bring us closer to a reasonable compromise,” his budget office said in a statement that warned a shutdown “would put the nation’s economic recovery in jeopardy.”
The measure, which would fund the US military until October 1 and which Reid has already said has no chance in the Senate, passed in a 247-181 vote.
As well as shutting out government workers, the partial closure of the government would delay pay to soldiers including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hurt some Americans counting on annual tax refunds.
Large areas of the government would shut down, federal workers would be ordered to turn off their Blackberries and would be barred by law from volunteering to go to the office unpaid.
With time to reach a deal ticking down, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor notified lawmakers that they would need to report to work on Friday and “keep their schedules for this weekend as flexible as possible.”
“We will not leave town until we have fulfilled our obligation to cut spending, to begin getting our fiscal house in order,” Cantor announced to his colleagues. Any deal reached by Democratic and Republican leaders would need to be endorsed by Congress.
Republicans disputed Democratic claims that both sides had settled on $34.5 billion in cuts and that the White House’s foes had stalled the talks by insisting that curbs on abortion and a roll-back of environmental rules be part of the final legislation.
“If this government shuts down – and it looks like it’s headed in that direction,” Republicans will be to blame for insisting on “matters that have nothing to do” with spending, charged Reid.
“The numbers are basically there,” Reid said, both sides are “extremely close” after aides worked throughout the night following talks at the White House late Wednesday.
But “I am not nearly as optimistic – and that’s an understatement – as I was 11 hours ago,” because of the rifts over Republican-crafted measures to restrict access to abortion and roll back environment rules, the senator warned.
Both items were included in a House-passed measure to fund the US government to the end of the 2011 fiscal year, September 30, while cutting some $61 billion in government spending.
“We made progress last night at least I thought we did. But when I see what the White House has to offer today, it’s really just more of the same,” Boehner told reporters.
“I think we were closer to a number last night that we were this morning. There are a number of issues that are on the table and any attempt to try to narrow this down to one or two, just would not be accurate,” he said.
The speaker has come under heavy pressure from the archconservative “Tea Party” movement who helped power Republicans to recapture the House and erode the Democratic Senate majority in November elections.
Tea Party members and lawmakers closely aligned with the movement have heaped pressure on Boehner not to compromise with Democrats and said they would rather see the government shutdown than make major concessions.
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