Dems hint at flexibility in budget talks
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Democrats indicated Tuesday they may be willing to accept Republican-backed curbs on the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal regulators as part of an overall deal on spending cuts, a rare hint of compromise in private negotiations marked by public rancor.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House, although administration officials are working closely with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the secretive three-way talks that also include House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Any concession by Democrats on non-spending items would mark an attempt to persuade Republicans to accept smaller budget cuts than the $61 billion contained in legislation that passed the House last month.
The talks are aimed at finding agreement on a bill to meet the Republicans' demand for spending cuts while funding the government through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.
A current short-term spending measure expires on April 8, and a partial government shutdown looms without further action by Congress by then.
The talks have taken place entirely out of public view, but in recent days, lawmakers in each party have swapped accusations while saying prospects for a deal were dimming.
This maneuvering took an unusual turn during the day when Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., could be heard advising fellow Democratic senators what to say in a conference call with reporters.
"The only way we can avoid a shutdown is for Boehner to come up with a reasonable compromise and not just listen to what the tea party wants," he said.
"I always use the word extreme. That's what the caucus instructed me to do the other week, extreme cuts and all these riders."
The term riders refers to the non-spending provisions Republicans included in the bill, some of which Democrats now signal that may accept.
At a news conference in the Capitol, Reid pointedly did not rule out the provisions that Republicans included in a $61 billion package of spending cuts.
"We're happy to look at the policy riders. There aren't many of them that excite me. But we're willing to look at them. In fact, we've already started looking at some," he said.
Other officials stressed that opposition remains strong to GOP attempts to defund or otherwise hamper implementation of the year-old health care law. Nor are Democrats willing to accept a cut-off in federal funds for the Planned Parenthood.
"It's too extreme," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "I don't see it happening."
But restrictions on the Environmental Protection Agency are the leading candidates for including in any agreement, according to numerous Democrats.
The House-passed measure includes provisions that would block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, which are blamed as a cause of global warming.
The agency would also be blocked from issuing or enforcing new regulations on the emission of mercury from cement factories, pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, surface coal mining and runoff into Florida waters.
Other elements of the House-passed bill would stop the administration from issuing new regulations on for-profit private schools and block the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing rules on the Internet that are opposed by Verizon and other Internet service providers.
These provisions drew support from Democrats when they cleared the House.
The Senate has not yet voted on any proposed restrictions on the EPA, but may do so Wednesday as part of a bill unrelated to the budget.
Democrats appear divided, with some likely to back proposals to block the agency from regulating greenhouse gases.
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