As Congress Negotiates, Federal Shutdown Looms

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Melissa Block speaks with NPR's Audie Cornish, who talks about congressional deliberations over the federal budget for 2011. Failure to reach agreement by April 8 will result in a government shutdown.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's almost April and the federal budget clock is ticking down toward another potential government shutdown. This time, lawmakers have until April 8th to reach a compromise on this year's spending. The two sides appear to be about $50 billion apart. Some Democrats have offered to split the difference, while Republicans are caught between the Tea Party and a hard place.

NPR's Audie Cornish joins us from Capitol Hill. And, Audie, bring us up to date on what's happening with these negotiations.

AUDIE CORNISH: Hello, Melissa. Well, what's on the table is essentially House Republicans passed their bill with $61 billion in spending cuts. That's down from 2010 spending levels already. That was a few weeks back. But it failed in the Senate, so it's not considered viable.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats didn't have enough support for the proposals they tried to pass. And at this point, they're offering to cut more than $30 billion instead.

Now, House Speaker John Boehner has asked his Appropriations Committee staff to talk with the Senate counterparts. And so, it seems like negotiations are more or less back on. But that hasn't stopped the war of words. For example, here was House Speaker John Boehner today.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (House Speaker; Republican, Ohio): Now, the Senate says, we have a plan. Well, great. Pass the damn thing, all right? And send it over here and let's have real negotiations instead of sitting over there rooting for a government shutdown.

CORNISH: So even though talks are on, there's been a lot of this back and forth accusations about who's rooting for a shutdown.

BLOCK: And, Audie, is either party, do you think, ready to deal with the potential backlash from voters if they do have a shutdown, if they fail to reach an agreement?

CORNISH: Well, they're certainly ready to play defense in terms of deflecting the blame. For example, here's New York Senator Charles Schumer. He was caught accidentally revealing Democratic talking points with his colleagues on a conference call with reporters earlier this week.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Because the Tea Party wants to stick to HR-1, with its (beep) Draconian extreme - I always use the word extreme - that's what the caucus instructed me to do the other week.

CORNISH: Republicans have run with this slip-up of talking points, using it to claim that Democrats want a shutdown.

Meanwhile, you know, Republican leaders, especially in the House, are facing their own pressure. First from Tea Party Patriot activists, who are actually holding a rally on the National Mall tomorrow to demand, you know, the hundred billion in cuts that the GOP had pledged during their campaign season and, secondly, from their own caucus. People like freshman conservative Martha Roby of Alabama.

Representative MARTHA ROBY (Republican, Alabama): We will not settle for a split the baby strategy. The American people want real cuts and it is time for the Senate Democrats to respond.

CORNISH: So, House Republicans came up with a bill they call the Government Shutdown Prevention Act, which would say lawmakers wouldn't get paid if there was a shutdown and which also says that if the Senate doesn't pass anything by the deadline, their proposal will become law.

I mean, of course this is symbolic because the Senate isn't going to pass this. The president isn't going to sign it. But it's a way for them to say, look, if the government shuts down, don't look at Republicans, blame Democrats.

BLOCK: And, Audie, this is largely about money but not exclusively about money, right?

CORNISH: You're right. The major sticking point actually are policy riders Republicans want. These are provisions saying, you know, the government can't fund the new health care law, preventing the EPA from enforcing certain rules, money for Planned Parenthood. There's about a dozen of these things.

And Democrats say they don't belong on a spending bill, but they're willing to look at them. You know, it seems - if it means moving the negotiations forward.

BLOCK: And this has become, of course, a long and drawn-out debate. The fiscal year is over in six months.

CORNISH: And what's at stake, we're talking about 30 to $60 billion out of a $1.5 trillion budget. I mean, this isn't going to solve the deficit. But what it does do is set up talks for the rest of the year on bigger debt drivers -debate over Medicaid and Medicare and raising the debt limit.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Audie Cornish on Capitol Hill. Audie, thanks a lot.

CORNISH: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is NPR News.

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