Obama, Congressional Leaders Meet For Budget Talks

Renee Montagne talks with NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson for the latest on the federal budget fight.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

This morning, President Obama will bring the top congressional Democrat and Republican to the Oval Office. He's hoping to get Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner to agree to a budget deal to avoid a government shutdown at the end of this week. At issue: deep spending cuts the Republicans want and the Democrats and the Obama administration oppose.

We've asked NPR's Mara Liasson to bring us up to date on the fight over spending for this fiscal year, and an even bigger fight over the budget for 2012.

Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Where are the two sides on these budget talks? And I'm thinking, really, first, this current-year budget. And will there be a shutdown?

LIASSON: Well, that is the big question. Here we are, four days away from when government funding runs out, and nobody knows if there's going to be a shutdown or not. It's really extraordinary.

The two sides did agree on a number. They were going to cut $33 billion for the rest of this fiscal year. But they're still trying to figure out where that money should come from and what to do with these policy writers defunding Planned Parenthood or the EPA or National Public Radio that the Democrats don't want on the bill and the Republicans do. And also, where exactly should they find the cuts? Should they dip into mandatory programs, or just stick to domestic discretionary spending?

And the interesting thing here is that there's been a lot of public sniping that made it seem like the two sides were at an irreconcilable standoff. But there still is a private discussions. And one of the big questions is about John Boehner. He, early on, knew exactly where the center of this debate is, because that $33 billion number is almost exactly what he proposed originally, before his Tea Party freshman forced him to almost double that number.

Can he get his troops in line? How many Republican votes is he willing to do without in the House to pass this? There was some talk yesterday of the Republicans would get another temporary weeklong funding measure together, to go for another week. But everybody has said that they don't want to do that again. They want to get the rest of the year solved. So we really don't know what's going to happen.

MONTAGNE: Now, Mara, if there is a shutdown, which party would you expect would get the blame for that?

LIASSON: That's an interesting question. Obviously, last time, 1995, we went through this kind of exercise. The Republicans got blamed. But this time, things are different. A recent Pew poll said that 39 percent said Republicans would be more to blame if the government shutdown. Thirty-six percent said the Obama administration. So that is almost evenly split. That tells you a little bit why today's meeting at the White House is such high stakes.

The other thing about this Pew poll that was interesting is that 50 percent of Republicans say that lawmakers should stick by their principles, even if it means a government shutdown. But 69 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents said lawmakers should be willing to compromise, even if they pass a budget they disagree with.

So you can see the real difference between the bases of both parties.

MONTAGNE: Okay, so the Republican House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan is announcing his budget today for the next fiscal year. That's 2012. There's some very large changes he's proposing.

LIASSON: Yes. He's proposing big cuts in spending, about $6 trillion in cuts that would bring government spending to below 2008 levels. He would put strict caps on government spending. But the biggest thing that Paul Ryan's 2012 budget does is it touches the third rail of American politics. It takes on entitlements. It, in effect, privatizes Medicare. It would give seniors, people who are under 55 - anybody over 55 wouldn't be touched by his plan. But they would get a certain amount of money to go out into the private marketplace and buy what is, in effect, Medicare coverage.

The money, the subsidy, would go directly to the private plan that they're buying it from. Now, opponents say that would save the government money, but it would put more of the burden on seniors, because they wouldn't have enough money to buy healthcare. They say Medicare Advantage - which is a similar kind of private plan - didn't bring healthcare costs down.

But the big point is is that he takes on entitlements, and he's the first person in and Congress to actually present a plan to do that.

MONTAGNE: Okay, so all kinds of big decisions to be made.

NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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