It sounds like a pretty good starting point for negotiations: The White House and Capitol Hill Democrats say they're ready to meet the GOP halfway in the latest round of budget talks, offering $50 billion in cuts compared with Republicans' proposed $100 billion worth of reductions.
"The White House has been willing to move halfway to where they are," said Gene Sperling, director of the White House National Economic Council. "Talking about negotiation and compromise, that's very important."
A news release from House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer posed this challenge: "Democrats meet Republicans halfway: When will Republicans agree to cut and compromise?"
Trouble is, neither the $50 billion nor the $100 billion figure holds up. And when they're translated into real numbers, the White House is arguably meeting the GOP just one-sixth of the way _ not halfway at all.
The problem is that both sides are starting with President Barack Obama's proposed budget for 2011, which never came close to being enacted into law. Presidential budget blueprints never do. Nonetheless, the GOP suggested $100 billion in spending cuts from that proposal.
Compared with actual current spending levels, the GOP's proposed cuts come out to around $61 billion.
The White House math is similarly fuzzy. The White House gets to its $50 billion figure by first counting $40 billion of proposed cuts from Obama's never-passed 2011 budget that were included in a proposed spending bill that itself was never enacted.
On top of that phantom $40 billion, the White House adds $4 billion in cuts to current spending levels that the president signed into law this week as part of a two-week stopgap spending measure. And on Thursday, when Vice President Joe Biden headed to Capitol Hill to kick off negotiations on legislation to fund the government until the Sept. 30 end of the spending year, the White House announced it was putting forward an additional $6.5 billion in cuts.
That brings to $10.5 billion the amount the White House is trying to cut from current spending levels, compared with $61 billion the Republicans want.
"Calling this latest proposal an effort to meet us halfway is nonsense," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Friday on the Senate floor. "What the White House is proposing is little more than one more proposal to maintain the status quo _ to give the appearance of action where there is none."
The figures do serve a political purpose though. Republicans get to say they're delivering on a promise to their conservative base, made before last November's elections, to cut $100 billion in federal spending. And Democrats get to look like they're serious about compromising with newly empowered Republicans _ and about fiscal austerity, too _ at a time of unusual public concern about the deficit.
This kabuki dance looks likely to continue as lawmakers face a March 18 deadline to finalize spending for the current fiscal year or face a government shutdown. Both sides say they want to avert that, but they remain far apart, and not just rhetorically. Republicans face tea party pressure not to budge on their cuts, which slash drastically into environmental, social and other programs, and which Obama's threatened to veto. The White House's latest offering of reductions, meanwhile, includes a number of recycled ideas or easy-to-cut fruit already agreed to by both parties.