WASHINGTON – Their opening volleys behind them, the White House and tea party-backed Republicans in Congress still face a gaping disagreement over how much to immediately cut from domestic programs over the next six months as a down payment on out-of-control budget deficits.
Only two weeks remain before a stopgap funding bill runs out, but neither side seems in a hurry to move off of its position in any significant way — at least yet.
In opening talks Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden offered Republicans a package of mostly recycled budget cuts totaling $6.5 billion in response to GOP-backed legislation slashing domestic agency budgets back to levels in place before President Barack Obama took office.
The White House cuts fell well short of what resurgent Republicans are demanding but were seen by Democrats as an attempt to meet Republicans in the middle.
"Democrats stand ready to meet the Republicans halfway on this," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "That would be fair."
The combatants are involved in a dizzying numbers game that not all of them seem able to explain clearly. Republicans say they've cut $100 billion from Obama's budget requests for the ongoing fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, but when Democrats use the same measuring stick to claim more than $40 billion — based on their agreement to freeze spending right away — GOP aides dismiss the moves as embracing the status quo.
Democrats, for their part, claim as their own $4 billion in savings from a GOP-drafted stopgap spending bill signed by Obama on Wednesday. And the additional cuts proposed on Thursday carve little new ground.
In fact, the administration's latest $6.5 billion spending cut proposal contains lots of easy targets, like cutting accounts lawmakers have heavily "earmarked" with back-home projects like clean water funding, eliminating $500 million in grants to state and local police departments and $425 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money for state and local governments for homeland security and disaster preparedness.
The White House list also would cut $280 million for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has canceled, $275 million cut from a program subsidizing community service jobs for low-income senior citizens and $500 million in rescissions of unneeded money from a program providing food aid to low-income pregnant women and children under the age of 5.
Republicans were mum after Thursday's meeting, deferring to Biden.
"We had a good meeting, and the conversation will continue," the vice president said. Notably, his statement omitted catchphrases that might have described the session as "productive" or "making progress."
House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman, Brendan Buck, said before the meeting that cuts of the magnitude suggested by the White House were "little more than the status quo."
The talks, in Biden's private office just off the Senate floor, marked the beginning of an attempt by the White House and top lawmakers to agree on legislation to cut spending and avert a partial government shutdown when current funding authority expires on March 18.
Republicans, their ranks swelled by 87 freshmen, passed legislation in the House calling for $61 billion in cuts, coupled with prohibitions on federal regulations proposed to take effect on several industries, along with a prohibition on giving taxpayer money to Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception and health care to millions of women and girls.
Money for food inspection, college aid, grants to local schools and police and fire departments, clean water projects, job training and housing subsidies also would be reduced.
The White House has threatened to veto the GOP measure, and Democrats have attacked it as reckless.
In addition to Boehner and Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., attended the talks, as did Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.