White House sticks to ‘bipartisan’ talking point on budget fight over GOP objections

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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On Monday, the White House reiterated last week’s claims that Republicans and Democrats have agreed on a $73 billion budget cut. Republicans say such talk of a near-agreement is intended to help Democrats blame conservatives for what many predict will be an impasse and government shutdown.

“If we work together, roll up our sleeves and get to work very quickly, then we can find a compromise that reduces spending by $73 billion, protects our investments that are key to future economic growth,” spokesman Jay Carney said during the press conference. “Yes, that can get done [but] time is of the essence,” he said, adding that Barack Obama is trying to close the deal by inviting two top leaders to the White House to talk about the budget impasse, with the president in the role of host and referee.

The Democrats are “trying to spin their way towards a government shutdown, one where the Republicans get the blame” for being unreasonable, countered Peter Roff, a senior fellow at the libertarian-minded, D.C.-based Institute for Liberty. The spin will likely fail, because the public is more agreeable towards budget cuts than in the 1990s, and there are more information sources, he said.

Neither political faction has support from a majority of the public. On Monday, The Hill newspaper released poll results showing that 41 percent of likely voters said the GOP has been “more reasonable,” but only 29 percent viewed Democrats are more reasonable. The crucial swing vote, however, has not swung: 22 percent said neither party was more reasonable, and 7 percent said they did not know enough to judge.

Obama’s invitees to the White House include the House’s Republican speaker, Rep. John Boehner, and Rep. Hal Rogers, Kentucky Republican, chairman of the House appropriations committee, plus Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Sen. Dan Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, and the chairman of the Senate’s budget committee. The meeting is intended “to discuss ongoing negotiations on a funding bill [because] the president has made clear that we all understand the need to cut spending and … we can all work off the same number — $73 billion in spending cuts this year alone,” Carney said.

The $73 billion figure includes $40 billion in federal budget increases sought this year by the administration. However, Republicans refused to increase spending, prompting Democrats to classify the denied $40 billion as a budget cut.

Republicans have proposed to cut the $3.7 trillion budget by $61 billion this year, and to impose deeper cut for next year. The $3.7 request includes $1.6 billion, or 40 percent, in deficit spending.

Democrats have suggested they’re open to cutting the budget by $33 billion. That suggested cut of $33 billion, plus the hoped-for increase of $40 billion, comprise the $73 billion that many Democrats claim is an agreed-upon cut for this year.

In concert with the White House, Democratic legislators are pushing a storyline in which the near-agreement is being foiled by supposed Tea Party hard-liners. In one Sunday chat show, for example, Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, argued that “extremist” conservatives will likely wreck an emerging agreement between the GOP and Democratic leaders. “The one group that’s standing in the way [of a deal] here is the Tea Party,” Schumer said on ABC’s “This Week.” “The American people are seeing the Tea Party for what it is: extreme,” he declared.

Republicans, however, deny the Democrats’ repeated declarations of closeness between the ideologically distant Democratic progressives and Republican conservatives. On Sunday, for example, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, dismissed Schumer’s claim that the Tea Party was blocking a budget deal. “Tens of millions support and believe what the [Tea Party members] are saying … fundamentally they know this country is on a path to fiscal disaster,” he said on the TV show.

Carney denied the Democrats were bracing for a shutdown. “I would not say they are bracing, because we at the White House believe there is ample room for compromise, for finding common ground, because that’s what the American people want us to do,” he said.

So far, the Democrats’ talking points are aimed at “an elite conversation,” said Roff. “America is vaguely aware of it, but they’re not following the details.” However, “if the government shuts down, they will start following the details … they’re not dumb, they[‘re] busy, cooking, driving kids to school, correcting homework and wondering how to pay the mortgage without having a job,” he said.

But once they start paying attention, they’re likely to sympathize with budget-cutting Republicans, he said. Polls already show broad public agreement with Republicans and declining trust of the White House.

Roff is optimistic, however, the 1995 shutdown is widely regarded in Washington as a loss for the GOP, but it kept control of Congress the next fall, and put the national on a path to balance. he said. This time around, the public is readier to accept budget cut, has better sources of information, and less trust in the president, he said. “The White House has demonstrated a leadership vacuum,” said Roff, “but there’s no spin vacuum.”