by Jim Abrams, Associated Press
WASHINGTON – House Republicans on Friday detailed a proposal to slash $4 billion in federal spending as part of legislation to keep the government operating for two weeks past a March 4 deadline. They urged Senate Democrats to accept their approach and avoid a government shutdown.
Democrats said they were encouraged that the two sides appeared to be narrowing the gap on possible spending cuts, but warned against Republican efforts to force their position on Congress.
"A government shutdown is not an acceptable or responsible option for Republicans," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said in a conference call where he and other Republicans promoted their plan for avoiding the first government shutdown since 1996.
They said failure to work out a deal would put the responsibility for a disruption of government services on the Democrats.
The GOP plan, to be debated on the House floor next Tuesday, includes some $1.24 billion in savings, mainly from programs that President Barack Obama had proposed cutting in the fiscal 2012 budget, and the termination of some $2.7 billion in earmarks, or special projects, that are part of this year's budget.
With only a week left before federal spending authority runs out, both parties have sought to preemptively blame the other if a shutdown does occur. Democrats who control the Senate have rejected as draconian a bill passed by the House last week that would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 while carrying out $61 billion in spending cuts.
They have called for a short-term extension of federal spending so the parties can negotiate, but at current spending levels. Democrats are also discussing cuts that head in the same direction as the Republicans by focusing on earmarks and accelerating the elimination or trimming of programs recommended in Obama's 2012 budget. But the Democrats would apply the cuts to the remaining seven months of the fiscal year.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, repeated his position that approving a short-term funding bill without cuts "is unacceptable."
The $1.24 billion in program cuts proposed by the GOP-run House Appropriations Committee included $650 million in highway money for states provided in the fiscal 2010 budget, $250 million for a Striving Readers program that Obama wanted to eliminate next year and $75 million in election assistance grants for states, also slated for elimination in the president's budget.
The earmarks Republicans would eliminate range from $1 million for a Customs and Border Patrol solar-powered batteries program to $341 million for Army Corps of Engineers construction.
If Senate Democrats walk away from the offer, said Illinois Republican Rep. Peter Roskam, "they are then actively engineering a government shutdown."
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, responded that there was "the potential for a lot of overlap in what Republicans and Democrats want to do to cut spending, but they are threatening to force a shutdown if they don't get everything they want right away. That is reckless and irresponsible."
After the Republicans announced their proposal, Schumer added: "They feared a government shutdown and so they are adopting some of our suggestions on what to cut."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman, Jon Summers, also had conciliatory words, saying the GOP plan "sounds like a modified version of what Democrats were talking about."
He said Congress should pass a stopgap spending measure for no longer than next month if more time is needed to reach a compromise, adding that the "'my way or the highway' approach Republicans have been taking in the past only signals a desire for a government shutdown that our country can't afford."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell weighed in, saying the House proposal gives Democrats the opportunity to show they understand that "status quo spending is unacceptable." As a result, he said, "there is now a clear path to finishing this short-term measure before the March 4th deadline."
But there was no indication of direct talks between the two sides or that Republicans were willing to give ground on either their $4 billion cut for two weeks or their $61 billion in cuts for the rest of the budget year.
"We hope the Senate is going to finally join us in these common sense cuts" to keep the government running and not continue to "play chicken" with a government shutdown, Cantor said.
The Republicans shrugged off an analysis by a Goldman Sachs economist that the $61 billion in cuts, if enacted, could slow economic growth this year by up to 2 percentage points.
House GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy of California said Obama's $814 billion stimulus package enacted two years ago showed that federal spending can't revive a faltering economy, and that what businesses need now is the certainty that the federal government will downsize.