Senate Democrats signaled Thursday they will call for spending cuts as part of legislation to keep the government in operation through the end of the fiscal year, accepting a bedrock Republican demand for immediate reductions and easing the threat of a March 4 shutdown of federal programs and services.
No decisions have been made on what size cuts to include in legislation expected on the Senate floor next week, these officials said, adding that $8.5 billion in funding for previously approved congressionally-approved earmark projects is on the chopping block. In addition, aides are reviewing $24.7 billion worth of proposals President Barack Obama recently made to reduce or eliminate programs beginning in 2012, to see whether any should be accelerated.
One obvious candidate for elimination is an alternative engine for the Pentagon's next-generation fighter aircraft, a program that the White House and Defense Secretary Robert Gates oppose and that the House recently voted to jettison at a savings of about $450 million.
The disclosure comes as the two parties maneuver for position in advance of March 4, when funding authority expires for much of the government. Leaders in both parties say they hope no shutdown occurs. Each also accuses the other of seeking one, and hopes to avoid political blame if it occurs.
The House passed legislation last week to extend funding authority through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year, including $61 billion in spending cuts and a blockade on selected federal regulations on some polluters, large Internet providers and other industries. The bill also blocks the use of federal funds to implement the year-old health care law, a key priority of the 87-member class of first-term Republicans elected last fall with the support of tea party activists.
In response, congressional Democrats accused the GOP of itching for a shutdown, but the White House has been less accusatory. While Obama issued a veto threat against the House bill, aides also emphasized that he wants to work with lawmakers in both parties to cut federal deficits that are now at record levels.
The debate over spending has grown increasingly tangled in recent days, with lawmakers talking of the possible need for a short-term spending bill of a few weeks in duration that would prevent a shutdown while talks continue on a seven-month measure needed to carry through to the end of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Democrats stressed they were not agreeing to cut spending in any shorter-term bill.
Even so, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, Michael Steel, said the latest move by Democrats showed they were "making progress toward our goal of cutting government spending to help the private sector create jobs." He called on them to follow up by agreeing to support a short-term bill with spending cuts "rather than shutting down the government."
Officials said the House Republican rank and file held a telephone conference call during the day to review their next steps. One participant said none of the lawmakers who spoke reported having been upbraided by constituents over last week's passage of spending cuts, and all had reaffirmed Boehner's earlier announcement that any short-term bill include cuts.
Republicans said the call ended without resolving whether the GOP leadership will include in a short-term bill any of the provisions that are not directly related to spending cuts. Among the leaders, there appears to be scant support for such a move since it could complicate attempts to avert a shutdown on March 4, making it unlikely they will be included in legislation expected on the House floor next week.
At the same time, a consensus appears to be growing among House Republicans to look for short-term cuts in the same general areas that Senate Democrats are targeting for debate this coming week, these officials added, referring to earmarked projects and presidential recommendations for 2012.
The officials in both parties spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose private deliberations.
While the day's events suggested a partial government shutdown is less likely, significant differences remain in the positions of the two parties.
For example, Senate Democrats refuse to consider cuts in any short-term bill, preferring to hold them back for talks on a final compromise.
The decision by Senate Democrats to seek cuts as part of a seven-month bill underscores that members of their own rank and file want to demonstrate a commitment to cutting federal deficits that goes beyond the five-year freeze in domestic spending that Obama included in his 2012 budget. Democrats have a majority in the Senate, 53-47, including independents who side with them, but several of the party's lawmakers are on the ballot in 2012 in swing states.
Federal deficits are estimated to reach a record $1.5 trillion, and Republicans won control of the House and gained Senate seats last fall on a promise of reducing spending and reining in the reach of the government.
Obama's 2012 budget includes $24.7 billion in program reductions and terminations, and it was not immediately clear which of them might be included in the legislation Senate Democratic leaders send to the floor.
Obama also has proposed a $2.5 billion reduction in energy assistance for the low-income, arguing that a recent spike in prices has dissipated. The proposal drew sharp criticism from some Democrats at the time it was disclosed.
Obama has also proposed a $1 billion reduction in a grant program for local airports and cuts in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects, as well as dozens of smaller reductions.