WASHINGTON - Congressional negotiators are working on a proposal for around $33 billion in spending cuts over the next six months and Vice President Joe Biden was reporting "good progress" in budget talks to prevent a government shutdown.
But that's considerably less in cuts than tea party activists demanded.
The tentative split-the-difference plan would end up where GOP leaders started last month as they tried to fulfill a campaign pledge to return spending for agencies' daily operations to levels in place before President Barack Obama took office. That calculation takes into account the fact that the current budget year, which began Oct. 1, is about half over.
The $33 billion figure, disclosed by a congressional aide familiar with the talks and confirmed by Biden, used a measuring stick tied to Obama's budget instead of a current spending freeze. The number is well below the $60 billion-plus in cuts the House passed last month, but it still represents significant movement by Senate Democrats and the administration after originally backing a freeze at current rates.
"There's no reason why, with all that's going on in the world and with the state of the economy, that we can't avoid a government shutdown," Biden told reporters after a meeting in the Capitol with Senate Democratic leaders.
Under Biden's math, the White House is conceding $73 billion in cuts from Obama's requests, which contained increases never approved by Congress. Republicans originally wanted $100 billion in cuts using the same gauge.
Some tea party-backed GOP lawmakers want the original $100 billion. With a tea party rally set for Thursday on Capitol Hill, it's unclear how many of the 87 freshmen Republicans elected last fall could live with the arrangement between top Democrats and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who plans to meet with freshman GOP lawmakers.
Both sides said the figure under consideration is tentative at best and depends on the outcome of numerous policy stands written into the bill. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said: "There's no agreement on a number for the spending cuts. Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to."
Some conservatives appear insistent on the full range of spending cuts, but others recognize that compromise is required to win Obama's signature and support from Democrats who control the Senate.
Far bigger fights are ahead on a longer-term GOP budget plan that takes a more comprehensive approach to the budget woes. Also looming is a must-pass bill to allow the government to borrow more money to meet its commitments. Republicans hope to use that measure to force further spending cuts on the president.
"I don't believe that shutting down government is a solution to the problem. Republicans and Democrats need to work out a compromise," said Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H. "Let's get this over with and get on to the budget."
But Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who earlier warned that "It's time to pick a fight," wants party leaders to hang tough.
The legislation would bankroll the day-to-day operating budgets of federal agencies including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30, the end of the current budget year.