By Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House and congressional leaders were set to meet on Thursday to try to begin narrowing a bitter partisan divide over the U.S. budget.
The opening round of negotiations aimed at setting funding for the remainder of the fiscal year will take place at 4 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democratic aides said.
Vice President Joe Biden will chair the meeting, which will include House Speaker John Boehner, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, aides said.
The White House said its budget director, Jacob Lew, and White House chief of staff William Daley also will attend.
Lawmakers have until March 18 to resolve sharp differences over spending levels through September after passing a short-term funding measure earlier in the week that for now averted a government shutdown.
The Republican-controlled House has passed a bill that would cut domestic spending by $61 billion, while Senate Democrats are preparing a measure that would keep funding essentially flat.
"Putting a meeting on the schedule doesn't change the fact that neither the White House nor a single Democrat in Congress has proposed a plan that would ... respond to the voters by reining in spending," McConnell said on the Senate floor.
Since October, the government has been running on an extension of the previous year's budget because lawmakers have been unable to agree on spending levels.
TEA PARTY SUPPORT
Republicans, spurred on by the Tea Party-aligned conservatives who handed them control of the House last November, have pushed for deep cuts in domestic operations that would cripple top Obama initiatives, such as reforms of healthcare and financial regulation.
Both parties acknowledge the need to reduce a budget deficit that is projected to hit a record $1.65 trillion this year, equal to 10.9 percent of the economy.
But Democrats warn that cutting government spending too steeply would hurt the shaky economic recovery and result in hundreds of thousands of job losses at a time when unemployment remains stuck at 9 percent.
A poll released Thursday found that most Americans don't share the passion for spending cuts felt by Tea Party-aligned conservatives.
The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that more than half of those surveyed fear that Republicans would cut spending too deeply, while 70 percent of Tea Party backers worry they would not go far enough.
Some 56 percent of those surveyed listed job creation and economic growth as a top government priority, while 40 percent listed reducing the deficit as a top priority.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; editing by Bill Trott)