WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and congressional leaders failed to agree Tuesday on a plan to keep the government funded past Friday, heightening fears that many federal activities could shut down this weekend.
Obama met for an hour and 20 minutes at the White House with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who’ve been trying for weeks to reach a compromise.
“We’re now closer than we’ve ever been to getting an agreement,” Obama said after the meeting. “The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown.”
At the Capitol, that appeared to be happening, as the public rhetoric grew harsh. If Reid and Boehner, who later reconvened for private talks, hadn’t reached a deal Tuesday night, Obama wanted them back at the White House for more talks today.
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“And if that doesn’t work, we’ll invite them again the day after that,” the president said, “and I will have my entire team available to work through the details of getting a deal done.”
Government spending authority runs out Friday. If no agreement is reached on providing new funding for the rest of the fiscal year, through Sept. 30, many federal activities are expected to begin shutting down Saturday, such as museums, monuments and national parks.
Obama and his aides refused again to give specifics of their contingency plans for a shutdown. In the past, hundreds of thousands of “nonessential workers” across the country have been told not to report to federal work during budget shutdowns, while others deemed essential did go to work. So far, the Obama administration isn’t saying which workers would be told to stay home and what federal functions wouldn’t be performed.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the federal budget office would start sending agencies memos in coming days about which operations to close if necessary. He said that the uniformed military would continue to get paid, but he referred questions about details to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which didn’t respond to questions, as it hasn’t for days.
Boehner offered a tentative solution Tuesday: extending the funding deadline another week while cutting $12 billion from current spending and funding the Pentagon for the rest of the fiscal year.
Forget it, Obama said.
“We’ve already done that twice,” he said, referring to previous short-term budget extensions. “That is not a way to run the government. I can’t have our agencies making plans based on two-week budgets.”
Democrats are willing to cut $33 billion from spending for the final six months of this fiscal year. The House of Representatives, on a party-line vote, approved $61 billion in cuts Feb. 19 and added dozens of social-policy changes, such as cutting funds that would implement the 2010 health care overhaul legislation.
Privately, people close to the budget talks say that most of those social changes are likely to be dropped. But in return, Republicans want to cut more than $33 billion.
The budget drama unfolded Tuesday on two levels: Publicly, leaders hardened their rhetoric, but privately, signals suggested that a deal was in reach.
Reid’s public tone was the angriest. After the White House meeting, he accused Republicans of kowtowing to the tea party, the conservative grass-roots movement that helped elect dozens of GOP congressmen last year.
“We thought for several days we were very close to an agreement,” Reid said.
Boehner fired back. “We can still avoid a shutdown, but Democrats are going to need to get serious about cutting spending, and soon,” he said.