Lawmakers Escalate The Battle Of Blame

There are just hours to go before funding for government agencies runs out, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill still have not reached a deal on this year's budget. And instead of spending the day negotiating behind closed doors, the principal players duked it out before cameras in a escalating battle of blame.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

There are just hours to go before funding for government agencies runs out. But lawmakers on Capitol Hill still have not reached a deal on this year's budget. And instead of spending the day negotiating behind closed doors, the principle players duked it out before cameras in an escalating battle of blame.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: The main Congressional players in the budget battle are House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. And they paint completely different pictures about what is going on. Speaker Boehner continued to maintain that no numbers had been agreed to but that progress was being made.

JOHN BOEHNER: These discussions continue to be respectful, we continue to work together. Most of the policy issues have been dealt with and the big fight is over the spending.

CORNISH: But Senator Harry Reid had a different story.

HARRY REID: John Boehner's having a difficult time in his caucus - I can give him that. But that does not mean that we can't have an agreement when agreement was reached. I don't know what happened last night. But as I indicated earlier today, at 4:00 in the morning I got an email saying we've tried but they backed off the number they agreed to.

CORNISH: That number was $38 billion, down from the current government spending levels. Then, there are the policy provisions, like defunding environmental regulations, the new health care law and the like, that have been a point of contention throughout the negotiation.

Reid says most of the several dozen policy provisions have been dealt with in one way or another. All but one issue, according to Democrats. And that one issue would eliminate federal funding to subsidize family planning and women's health services around the country and bar organizations like Planned Parenthood from getting federal funds.

Reid hammered on that message that Republicans were causing the impasse.

REID: They can keep their word and - cut the federal deficit or they can shut down America's government over women's access to health care. If that sounds ridiculous, it's because it is ridiculous.

CORNISH: But on the other side of the capitol, House Speaker John Boehner didn't take the bait. Republicans are still pushing for deeper cuts. And if policy provisions go, it makes the debate that much harder. Boehner refused to discuss the Planned Parenthood provision or any other specifically.

BOEHNER: I'm also hopeful we'll be able to come to some agreement. But we're not going to roll over and sell out the American people like has been done time and time again here in Washington. When we say we're serious about cutting spending, we're damn serious about it.

CORNISH: It was Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in what has been an extremely partisan Senate, who appeared the most optimistic that a deal could be reached.

MITCH MCCONNELL: Let Senator Reid talk with his conference. Let the Speaker talk to his. And let's just hold off on the speculation and the back and forth for just a little while here. Both sides are working hard to reach the kind of resolution Americans desire. A resolution is actually within reach. The contours of a final agreement are coming into focus.

CORNISH: And some Senate Democrats say there are still ways to deal with the issue, such as holding a separate vote on the Planned Parenthood funding provision, so that the main budget can move ahead. After all, the fiscal year is set to end in September.

Meanwhile, if there is an agreement, lawmakers would still have to act quickly to prevent a partial government shutdown, most likely by passing a stopgap spending bill covering a few days or even a week while a final bill moves through both chambers, but that's a big if.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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