WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner butted heads in the White House over financing the government for the next six months but emerged no closer to a deal to prevent a partial shutdown of federal operations at midnight Friday.
A visibly frustrated Obama emerged from the failed negotiation session Tuesday and declared it would be “inexcusable” to allow “politics and ideology” to force Washington to close many of its doors in a dispute over what amounts to about 12 percent of what the U.S. government spends.
“We are closer than we have ever been to an agreement. There is no reason why we should not get an agreement,” Obama said.
Boehner, meanwhile, denied White House claims that both sides had agreed, before going into the meeting, to cuts of $33 billion in spending for the rest of the year, The speaker said Republicans “will not be put in a box” of accepting options they refuse to endorse.
The unusually heated spending fight grows from many sources this year, first among them the coming 2012 presidential election and the heightened political jostling as the campaign heats up. Further fueling the dispute is the power of newly elected Republican-allied tea party members in the House of Representatives. They won their seats last November on promises of less spending, smaller government and no tax increases. They are making it hard for Boehner to compromise.
The spiraling U.S. debt, partly a result of massive federal spending to rescue the financial system and the economy during the Great Recession, has become a major issue in American politics. Republicans, particularly the most conservative among them, have made federal red ink a top policy issue, declaring it a threat to American security. The conservative ideology pushes for less government involvement in Americans’ day-to-day lives. The Republicans do not address the major tax cuts implemented during the administration of former President George W. Bush, a key factor in declining government revenues, and, therefore, increasing debt.
Obama and Democrats largely agree there is a major debt problem, but it is seen as less urgent. Democrats say Republican budget cutters will cause a collapse of the fragile economic recovery while also imposing too much pain on needy or working-class Americans who rely on government help, especially in difficult economic times. While improving, U.S. unemployment is still nearly 9 percent.
Immediately at issue in the budget fight is money to run government agencies for the remainder of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Before they ceded power to Republicans in the House in January, Democrats, too, had not passed legislation to fund the government for the entire year.
Since Republicans took over and Boehner became House speaker, he has engineered a pair of stopgap bills that have so far cut $10 billion from the estimated $1.2 trillion annual budget. Senate Democrats and Obama agreed to those temporary infusions of money, hoping this final run at a funding law would produce a compromise acceptable to both sides.
That has not happened and a frustrated Obama said he would be calling Boehner back the White House Wednesday and again on Thursday if a deal is not struck. Boehner met Tuesday afternoon with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who attended the White House session earlier in the day along with Vice President Joe Biden and the heads of the congressional appropriations committees. No significant movement was reported from meetings.
“We are closer than we have ever been to an agreement. There is no reason why we should not get an agreement,” Obama said after the White House get-together.
Short of a long-term deal, Boehner has proposed an agreement that would keep the government running for one more week and cut another $12 billion in spending.
Obama said he would accept another short-term funding extension, of only two or three days, to get a longer-term deal through Congress. But he ruled out a longer extension to allow negotiations to continue.
“That is not a way to run a government. I cannot have our agencies making plans based on two week budgets,” Obama said. “What we are not going to do is once again put off something that should have been done months ago.”
Besides attempts to cut spending, Republicans also have attached a social policy agenda to the must-pass spending bill. Those so-called riders to the spending measure attack Obama’s health care and financial reform laws, cut taxpayer funds to Planned Parenthood and reverse a host of Obama’s environmental policies, including refusal to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate climate changing greenhouse gas emissions.
On a separate long-term track, Republicans controlling the House fashioned plans to slash the budget deficit by more than $5 trillion over the coming decade, combining unprecedented spending cuts with a fundamental restructuring of taxpayer-financed health care for the elderly and the poor.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan announced the Republican budget blueprint Tuesday morning. It includes a controversial proposal to convert the traditional Medicare health care program for the aged into a system by which private insurers would operate plans approved by the federal government.
Current Medicare beneficiaries or workers age 55 and older would stay in the existing federal health care system.
At the same time, Republicans propose to cut sharply projected spending on the Medicaid state-federal health program for the poor and disabled and transform it into a block grant program that gives governors far less money than under current estimates, but considerably more flexibility.
The White House was quick to dismiss the Ryan plan as unacceptable.
“We strongly disagree with this proposal,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Carney’s comments echoed those of congressional Democrats and illustrated the deep divide over how to remedy the deficits and debt that saddle the nation’s finances.