Prodded by an insistent President Barack Obama, Congress' top two lawmakers sought to reinvigorate compromise talks Tuesday aimed at cutting tens of billions in federal spending and averting a partial government shutdown Friday at midnight.
There was at least a hint of flexibility, accompanied by sharply partisan attacks and an outburst of shutdown brinksmanship.
According to Democrats, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, suggested at a White House meeting that fellow Republicans might be able to accept a deal with $40 billion in cuts. That's more than negotiators had been eyeing but less than the House seeks.
The speaker's office declined comment, and Boehner issued a statement saying, "We can still avoid a shutdown, but Democrats are going to need to get serious about cutting spending - and soon."
For his part, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid sounded an accusatory note. "I hope the Republicans do what the country needs, not what they believe the tea party wants," he said at the Capitol
"I mean, it seems that every step we take, it's something just to poke us in the eye," he said.
Boehner and Reid met privately later in the day. While there was no indication of substantive progress, there was a marked change in tone afterwards.
Spokesmen for the two issued identical statements, shorn of partisan bickering, saying the two leaders "had a productive discussion. They agreed to continue working on a budget solution."
Obama stepped forcefully into the dispute, at times sounding like an exasperated parent.
He convened a meeting at the White House with the chief congressional antagonists, rejected a Republican proposal for an interim bill with sharp cuts and then announced Boehner and Reid would meet later in the day.
If they can't sort out their differences, he said, "I want them back here tomorrow."
And if that doesn't work, he added, "we'll invite them again the day after that. And I will have my entire team available to work through the details of getting a deal done."
Obama, eager to regain the confidence of independent voters as he seeks a new term, said the American public expects that its leaders "act like grown-ups, and when we are in negotiations like this, that everybody gives a little bit, compromises a little bit in order to do the people's business."
At issue is legislation needed to keep the government running through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year, and a desire by all sides to avoid being blamed politically if there is a shutdown.
Twin closures in the mid-1990s boomeranged on Republicans when Newt Gingrich was speaker, helping Bill Clinton win re-election in 1996.
This year, both the White House and lawmakers have used the threat of a shutdown to seek leverage in the talks.
Republicans issued a 13-page pamphlet during the day providing guidance to congressional offices on operations during a shutdown. Boehner's office said Monday night the document had been prepared "in the event Senate Democrats shut down the government."
Reid's spokesman, Jon Summers, likened the maneuver to a "dress rehearsal for a shutdown that the tea party so desires."
But one Republican official said it was a response to a memo on Monday distributed by Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of Obama's Office of Management and Budget.
Zients wrote that all parties wish to avoid a shutdown but, "given the realities of the calendar, good management requires that we continue contingency planning for an orderly shutdown should the negotiations not be completed by ... this coming Friday."
New to power, House Republicans grabbed onto the need for a spending bill last January as a way to force spending cuts on reluctant Democrats and the president. An initial House-passed measure, which included $61 billion in cuts and dozens of unrelated provisions, drew a veto threat from Obama and fell short of the 60 votes needed for passage in the Senate.
At the same time, several Senate Democrats joined with Republicans to reject an alternative measure to continue spending at current levels _ a post-election signal that they, too, wanted to see cuts take effect.
In the weeks since, Congress has approved two stopgap bills, containing a total of $10 billion in cuts at Republican insistence, and Obama has signed both into law.
In the interim, talks on the longer-term bill have grown increasingly acrimonious. Democrats said Boehner would eventually have to part company from tea party-backed lawmakers who propelled Republicans to power, and they accused him of reneging on an agreement to cut $33 billion.
In return, Republicans accused Democrats of resorting to budget gimmicks to make it look like they favored deep cuts, when in fact they sought higher spending.
On Monday, Boehner informed rank-and-file Republicans he would seek passage of a new stopgap bill, a week-long measure that includes $12 billion in cuts and funds the Defense Department through the end of the year.
Obama rejected it. He said he would sign an interim bill only if one were needed to get the paperwork together on a broader agreement and pass it through both houses.
"What we're not going to do is to once again put off something that should have gotten done several months ago," he said. Obama didn't say so, but that was an implied jab at Democrats, who had control of both houses of Congress last year and were unable to pass a budget or any of the 12 annual spending bills.
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