The White House is pressing to use a few billion dollars in budget savings from transportation and health programs to pay for easing cuts to education and housing as talks continue in hopes of avoiding a government shutdown this weekend.
Among the administration's ideas are to mop up unused money from federal highway programs and leftover funding from a program providing health care to children of lower-income families. Democratic officials required anonymity to characterize the proposals.
Both ideas officially "score" as savings that could be used to pay for spending elsewhere in the day-to-day budgets of domestic agencies. But some of them have little real impact in terms of cutting the deficit.
Republicans, though hardly pure in this regard, were quick to charge that the Democratic proposals are simply phantom savings because as a practical matter they cut money that wouldn't be spent immediately anyway, if at all.
Democrats counter that they're taking money off the table that could be used at some later time, and they point out that the GOP measure claims $10 billion in such savings.
"Many of the cuts that the White House and Senate Democrats are talking about are full of smoke and mirrors," House Speaker John Boehner said Monday on the eve of a White House meeting with President Barack Obama aimed at making progress in the stalled talks. "That's unacceptable."
But Boehner's own measure claims $5 billion alone from an oft-used gimmick that taps a crime victims trust fund year after year.
At issue is how to find cuts in long-overdue legislation required to fund the operating budgets of every Cabinet agency for the ongoing budget year, which is already half over. The House passed a $1.2 trillion spending bill in February that would cut more than $60 billion from current-year spending that's far too high for Democrats. They have signaled a willingness to accede to $33 billion in cuts, so long as some of them come from so-called mandatory programs whose budgets run largely on autopilot.
These proposed changes in mandatory programs, called "CHIMPs" in the geeky world of Washington budgeting, include $3 billion or more in cuts in unused spending authority in the highway programs and smaller cuts to the Children's Health Insurance Program, which pays for health coverage of children whose parents make too much money to otherwise qualify.
In the eyes of Republicans, those aren't real cuts because they involve spending authority that was either capped elsewhere or not needed this year.
Another Democratic proposal _ one that's not a gimmick _ would cut an additional $500 million by eliminating the year-round version of the Pell Grant, a relatively new extension whose costs far exceed those anticipated. Democrats are also pressing cuts to a program established in last year's health care law to create community health care cooperatives.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., of "dictating the use of gimmicks and phony accounting to sneak more spending through the Congress and by the American people."
But House GOP appropriators have claimed $5 billion in fudged savings from capping payments from a Justice Department trust fund for crime victims and more than $400 million comes from capping a Treasury fund to help pay for the department's crime-fighting efforts.
Democrats are pushing to add as much as $6 billion more to the GOP's proposal, bringing the CHIMP total to as high as $16 billion.
That's too much, Republicans say, since it would account for almost half of the tentative $33 billion target.