Deal elusive for averting a shutdown

Accusations fly over spending; no progress on priorities

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By Theo Emery and Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / April 6, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A White House push for a budget deal yesterday devolved into an exchange of accusations over spending priorities and political gamesmanship, increasing the odds of a partial government shutdown on Friday.

The budget fight eclipsed most other business on Capitol Hill as Senate Democrats, White House officials, and House Republicans worked behind the scenes to cobble together a compromise plan to cut spending, fund government through September, and avert the first shutdown since 1996.

The stakes are high. A budget deal could slash federal funding for such programs as Planned Parenthood, public broadcasting, home heating oil assistance, and grants that help cities’ elderly and poor. The threatened partial shutdown could result in furloughs of federal workers, the shuttering of national parks, and a delay or cutoff of some federal services.

The outcome could also define the economic platforms — and voters’ perceptions — of Democrats and Republicans as both parties begin the jockeying for the 2012 presidential elections.

President Obama summoned congressional leaders to the White House yesterday to break through the impasse. The parties left emptyhanded.

“We have made clear that we are fighting for the largest spending cuts possible. We’re talking about real spending cuts here, no smoke and mirrors,’’ House Speaker John Boehner said afterward, warning that the $33 billion in cuts cited by Democrats as part of a potential agreement is not enough. He added that Republicans “will not be put in a box’’ by Democrats pushing them to back off certain proposals.

Obama sounded a more hopeful note, but he, too, spiked his comments with a warning. “We are closer than we have ever been to an agreement,’’ he said, adding, “We are now at the point where there is no excuse to extend this further.’’

Boehner and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, met again late in the afternoon without White House officials present. No deal was completed, although spokesmen called the talks productive.

The lack of progress and the approaching Friday deadline prompted the White House Office of Management and Budget to warn agencies to prepare for a shutdown. Some on Capitol Hill are bracing for the repercussions.

“Nobody wins,’’ said Representative Michael Capuano, Democrat of Somerville. “The American people will have trouble accessing federal agencies and programs, thousands of employees will go without pay, and we won’t be any closer to addressing our deficit in a meaningful way.’’

Throughout the day, members of both parties traded accusations over the impasse, each party blaming the other while claiming a desire to avoid a shutdown. Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, joined his House colleagues at a press conference and targeted his Senate counterparts, saying “the Senate has produced nothing.’’

Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, countered: “I get worried when I hear the rigidity of the Republican leaders. They seem to give no indication of compromise on anything.’’

Voters largely blamed Republicans for the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, analysts say. President Clinton, after watching his party lose control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections, easily won reelection in 1996.

Boehner and Republicans are keen to make sure this budget impasse does not lead to a similar outcome for Obama next year.

One election observer suggests that this time around, they’ll be no winners.

“The American public is going to be much less likely to just blame one side and reward the other — I think they’ll blame both parties,’’ said Scott L. McLean, associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University.

Complicating the fight over spending for the rest of this year, Republicans yesterday released their plan for long-term changes to such programs as Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps — creating a second, more extensive front over spending priorities.

While the proposal is expected to unleash criticism from social service advocates, it offers the GOP an opportunity to define itself as the party willing to take potentially unpopular stances in order to improve the nation’s financial future.

One proposal seeks to transform Medicare by eventually requiring seniors to buy private insurance through what critics call a voucher program.

In all, the plan would cut spending by $6.2 trillion over the next decade from what Obama proposed.

“We can dig our way out of this in a sensible way, in a secure way, and we can save these programs from bankruptcy,’’ said Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee, in unveiling the plan.

Senator Scott Brown sounded open to the proposal yesterday, saying that “everything is on the table as far as budget cuts,’’ according to Brown’s office. But the Massachusetts Republican added that Congress should be focused instead on hammering out an agreement for the rest of the year.

A government shutdown could provide a political line of attack against Brown in his reelection bid. He voted for the House Republicans’ original proposal of $61 billion in cuts, which included unpopular proposals that are now at the center of the stalemate.

The response from critics of Ryan’s plan was swift and dismissive. Maria Freese of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare said the proposed changes to Medicare were tantamount to privatization.

“It’s pretty obvious to us that the provision in here that convert Medicare into a voucher system would destroy the system as we know it today,’’ she said.

Ryan McConaghy, director of the economic program at Third Way, a think tank for centrist Democrats, called the plan “an extreme conservative wish list.’’

“It will make it harder for Boehner to wrangle his people on board,’’ he said.

While the House speaker pledged to stand firm, he said that Republicans were prepared to pass yet another stopgap measure that would fund the government overall for another week and the Department of Defense for the rest of the year, while making a hefty $12 billion in additional cuts. “That remains an option for us,’’ he said.

It does not, however, appear to be an option for Democrats.

“What we’re not going to do is to once again put off something that should have gotten done several months ago,’’ Obama said.

Theo Emery can be reached at Mark Arsenault cab be reached at