WASHINGTON -- House Republicans unveiled a stopgap spending bill on Friday afternoon that would avert a government shutdown for two weeks while making dramatic cuts to social programs, totaling $4 billion. Senate Democrats flatly rejected such an offer on Wednesday, but today took a more conciliatory stance, while continuing to press for a monthlong extension.
The change in tone gives the impression that lawmakers are more willing to cut a deal than they are to let the government shut down on March 4 -- kicking the same debate down the road to March 18.
The bill released Friday is the exact same measure floated on Wednesday, according to a Republican leadership aide. When the GOP plan was leaked in the middle of the week, Senate Democrats hit back hard.
"The Republicans' so-called compromise is nothing more than the same extreme package the House already handed the Senate, just with a different bow. This isn't a compromise, it's a hardening of their original position. This bill would simply be a two-week version of the reckless measure the House passed last weekend," Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said at the time.
The proposal's formal language has now been released by the GOP, and Reid's office is striking a more cordial tone. "We are encouraged to hear that Republicans are abandoning their demands for extreme measures like cuts to border security, cancer research and food safety inspectors and instead moving closer to Democrats' position that we should cut government spending in a smart, responsible way that targets waste and excess while keeping our economy growing," Summers said in a statement.
What changed in two days, if not the Republican offer? For one, Senate Democratic staffers met on Thursday afternoon to find a list of tens of billions in cuts, moving closer to the Republican position. Additionally, say Democratic aides, the GOP backed off of budget cuts that simply would have been unacceptable.
"Instead of doing a prorated version of their $61 billion in cuts, they are adopting the cuts that the president put forward in his budget and the ones that we have signaled we are targeting as well, which we take as an admission by them that the measure they passed on Saturday is dead," a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. "They could have just done a prorated version of their cuts to border security, the [National Institutes of Health], food safety inspectors and all the other proposals we had rejected as going too far. Instead they are honing in about the kinds of cuts we have said we would have an open mind to."
Last Saturday morning, the House passed a spending package that would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September, aimed to cut spending by $61 billion, with many ideologically-driven cuts and riders that would cripple government regulation and the implementation of health care reform.
As time to fund the government runs out, the new bill would fund the government for two weeks, which House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said is an "attempt for us to try and find a ground that we can work on with the Senate in a bipartisan way." But the two-week bill is merely a short-term implementation of the bulk of the GOP's long-term cuts. It cuts funding to earmarked projects, but makes numerous exceptions, largely for Army Corps of Engineers projects.
The two-week measure does not contain the types of riders that some House Republicans had pushed for -- language that would defund health care reform or Planned Parenthood, for instance.
The cuts in the short-term spending bill dovetail with some in President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2012 budget. Nearly $460 million in cuts come from the Department of Education, targeting funding for reading programs for at-risk students, need-based grants and literacy efforts, according to an analysis of the two-week bill done by Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee. The GOP proposal would also cut Pell grants to college students by nearly one-fifth, from $5,500 to $4,860 per year.
About $2.7 billion in cuts were taken from programs slated for funding through earmarks, which Republicans have vowed not to support. Those cuts come from a wide variety of departments and programs, including $77 million in cuts from scientific research from the Department of Energy's Office of Science, $397 million removed for health resources and services and $22 million from special-education funding.
House Republicans said on a conference call Friday that they expected the Senate to accept the two-week stopgap bill, claiming that to do otherwise would lead to government shutdown.
"If the Senate Democrats walk away from this offer -- things Obama has proposed and they have embraced -- they're then actively engineering a government shutdown," Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) said.
Senate Democrats applauded the short-term plan, with Reid's office calling it "a modified version of what Democrats were talking about." But they signaled that they may not be willing to cooperate with Republican efforts for further cuts moving forward, setting up another battle between the House and Senate over funding within the next month.
"If we need a little more time to agree on a responsible path forward, we should pass a short-term CR for no longer than the next month," Summers, Reid's spokesman, said. "But 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. We hope this is a sign that they have abandoned it and will work with Democrats moving forward."
House Republicans said they are still committed to passing their initial funding cut bill -- even though Senate Democrats and the president vowed to block it. The House GOP rejected a report from a Goldman Sachs economist this week that their plan would hinder economic recovery.
"I'd just give it the reverse. If the premise is that if we cut it's going to hurt the economy, didn't we just have the reverse experience with the stimulus?" Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said on a conference call with reporters. "I think everyone in Congress has the reports and the experience that the stimulus was not the answer. Cutting government spending would create job growth."
Read the text of the bill:
Sam Stein contributed reporting.