In Congressional Budget Fight, Deal Seems Far Off

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As Republicans rev up their moves to rein in Social Security costs as part of a larger scheme to get control of the deficit, Democratic leaders rally on Capitol Hill to tell them to back off. The standoff comes as Congress rolls toward a showdown on this year's budget. Lawmakers must reach agreement by April 8, or the government will shut down.


Congress returns to work this week with a big piece of unfinished business: A budget agreement for the rest of the fiscal year. The latest in a series of temporary spending bills expires in two weeks.

And NPR's Brian Naylor reports that the two sides appear nowhere close to a deal.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Just to review the bidding, the Republican-led House has approved a spending measure for the remainder of the current fiscal year, including $61 billion in program cuts. And it contains an array of prescriptions for other programs, such as limiting the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases, and barring funding for Planned Parenthood.

The Democratic-controlled Senate, meanwhile, has not approved any spending measure for the current year, but leaders say they have OK'd some $10 billion in cuts, leaving the two sides some $51 billion apart.

According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, there have been ongoing behind closed door negotiations between the Senate Democrats and House Republicans over the past week. And Democrats are reportedly preparing to offer to make another $20 billion in cuts. But Reid says, Republicans have been hampered in those talks.

Senator HARRY REID (Senate Majority Leader; Democrat, Nevada): The biggest gap in this negotiation isn't between Republicans and Democrats. It's between Republicans and Republicans. The in-fighting between the Tea Party and the rest of the Republican Party, including the Republican leadership in Congress, is keeping our negotiating partner from the negotiating table. And it's pretty hard to negotiate without someone on the other side of the table to talk to.

NAYLOR: In fact, many House Republicans, backed by the Tea Party, have said they're unwilling to go below $61 billion in cuts. Beyond the current fiscal year, lawmakers are also starting to focus on the budget for the next fiscal year starting in October.

Republicans are expected to begin floating a plan in the coming days, which may include taking on entitlements. Those are the big programs that are swallowing ever larger parts of the budget, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Democrats have begun taking preemptive strikes at any possible Social Security cuts. At a rally at the Capitol today, they said that Social Security's problems are still years away.

Here's Vermont independent Bernie Sanders.

Senator BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): Now, If you want to talk about the deficit, talk about the wars, talk about tax breaks for billionaires, talk about the Wall Street bailouts, don't talk about Social Security.

NAYLOR: Dan Mitchell, a budget analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, says he doesn't expect much action by lawmakers on Social Security any time in the near future, though he would like to see major changes to the program.

Mr. DAN MITCHELL (Senior Fellow, Cato Institute): I wish Republicans had a plan to privatize Social Security because we do believe that America, like about 30 other countries around the world, should move to a system of personal retirement accounts. Right now, I think, both parties are basically sitting on their hands hoping the other side makes a mistake.

NAYLOR: Later this week, meanwhile, Tea Party members are scheduled to rally at the Capitol in an effort to hold lawmakers' feet to the fire on spending cuts. And further complicating the issue, the nation's expected to reach its legal borrowing limit in the next two months. Conservative lawmakers continue to threaten to vote against raising the debt ceiling unless it's accompanied by significant spending cuts.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues right after this.

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