Leaders Disagree Over Scope of Budget Talks

By Brian Friel and Sam Goldfarb, CQ Staff

House and Senate leaders have begun talks to figure out how to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, but they have yet to agree on which areas of the federal budget should be targeted for cuts.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Conference Vice Chairman Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday to strike a deal on a fiscal 2011 spending bill, discussions with House Republicans and the White House will have to target domestic discretionary spending, military spending and entitlement programs.

“Yes, we believe that to get to a number that can resolve this issue, there’s going to be some mandatories,” Reid said Thursday when asked if entitlement programs other than Social Security are on the table in budget talks.

Reid has previously suggested that agriculture subsidies — which fall under the mandatory, or entitlement, side of the budget — could be targeted, as could tax benefits for oil and gas companies. “And we want to push very hard that there’s strong consideration given to revenue,” Reid added Thursday.

Reid also said controversial policy proposals, such as a House-passed plan to halt federal funding for Planned Parenthood — could not be included in any final deal.

But Republicans, at least so far, have focused their energies on cutting discretionary spending.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said mandatory spending programs were not part of any fiscal 2011 spending discussions.

Senate Democrats and House Republicans remain deadlocked over a final fiscal 2011 spending bill, with GOP members pushing major spending cutbacks and Democrats suggesting more moderate reductions.

GOP leaders have previously rejected Democratic attempts to expand the scope of the spending discussions, arguing that it would be more appropriate to address mandatory programs in the context of a fiscal 2012 budget resolution.

Staff representing House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House met Wednesday afternoon for an hour and a half to discuss how to fund the government after the latest short-term continuing resolution (H J Res 48) runs out on April 8, just less than six months before the end of fiscal 2011 on September 30.

House Republicans passed a bill including more than $60 billion in cuts (HR 1) in February. Senate Democrats countered with a proposal that would cut $4.7 billion.

Lawmakers in both chambers have said the latest stopgap spending bill, the sixth since fiscal 2011 began, will be the last, meaning negotiators only have a few weeks to strike a broad spending deal.

If they cannot find common ground, that raises the possibility of a government shutdown after the latest CR expires.

Schumer said the budget talks should also include Defense Department cuts. “There’s waste in the military,” Schumer said. “Its a pretty universal feeling on our side that you have to go beyond domestic discretionary to get to a number that would be a compromise number.”

Targeting the Defense Department’s budget could complicate passage of a funding bill for the rest of the fiscal year, however. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said the Pentagon needs $540 billion this year, $8 billion more than provided in the House-passed bill.

A Senate aide said staff discussions are likely to occur next week, when the House and Senate will be on recess. The two chambers return the week of March 28, leaving leaders two weeks in session to strike a deal. Reid, Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressed confidence this week that they would reach a compromise in April.

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said that the recess will not interrupt negotiations. “We will have the final bill in time to the meet the April 8 deadline,” he said.

“We will be in conversation with everybody,” Rogers added. “It is in effect a conference.”

Niels Lesniewski and Kerry Young contributed to this story.

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