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Finish Line Still Out Of Reach In Budget Talks


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is in St. Louis this morning, visiting our member station KWMU. I'm Renee Montagne.

No deal yet on the budget. That's the word from President Obama. After another late night meeting with House and Senate leaders, the president called for the two sides to come to an agreement by early today, and staff negotiators on Capitol Hill worked into the night again. After a week of heated rhetoric, lawmakers don't sound all that confident they can reach a deal to keep the government running. The deadline is tonight at midnight.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports from Capitol Hill.

AUDIE CORNISH: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn't offer much after the meeting, except to say that progress had been made.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): We've narrowed the issues, and we have. But the sad part about it, we keep never quite getting to the finish line.

CORNISH: Reid and Senate Democrats say the two sides have settled on around $33 billion in spending cuts for this fiscal year, which ends in September.

House Speaker John Boehner insists nothing has been decided till everything has been decided. Still, earlier in the day, Boehner appeared to play down the dissonance.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): This is the first time we've all been in this environment, and only the first time we've had a Republican majority dealing with this president, the first time we've had a Republican majority dealing with this Senate. There's certainly some time - it's taken us some time to get acquainted with each other, trying to work our way through this.

CORNISH: All this is playing out against the backdrop of hot rhetoric on both sides of the Capitol.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia; House Majority Leader): We will not leave town until we have fulfilled our obligation to cut spending, to begin getting our fiscal house in order.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

CORNISH: Majority Leader Eric Cantor led a contentious House debate yesterday on yet another stopgap bill that would extend federal funding for one week while cutting another $12 billion. The Defense Department, however, would be funded for the rest of the year, and in the event of a government shutdown, the bill ensures that troops would be paid on time. It also contains a provision on abortion, so-called policy rider denying money for family planning services in Washington, D.C.

Democrats like Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, objected to the package.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): They're saying unless you yield to our demands on our very radical social agenda - which is what they're trying to impose through this - we're not going to move forward in helping our troops. That's a cynical ploy. The American people will see right through that.

CORNISH: The original budget approved by the House in February contained dozens of riders, including provisions defunding Planned Parenthood, environmental regulations and financial industry regulations.

Republicans such as Indiana's Mike Pence argue that conservatives should continue to fight for the riders.

Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): It seems like liberals in Senate would rather shut the government down than accept a 2 percent cut in the federal budget. It seems like liberals in the Senate would rather shut the government down so that they could continue to borrow money from China to fund the largest abortion provider in America.

CORNISH: The new one-week extension was approved in the House yesterday. But President Obama vowed to veto it, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pronounced it a nonstarter.

Sen. REID: It's not realistic to shut down the government on a debate dealing with abortion. It's not realistic. It's not fair to the American people. We haven't solved the issue in 40 years. We're not going to solve it in the next 38 hours.

CORNISH: It's not clear whether a shutdown can be averted. What is clear is that this is only the first test of wills between Democrats and newly empowered Republicans. Says House Speaker John Boehner...

Rep. BOEHNER: Because understand that this process that we're in is likely to be repeated a number of times this year. I think everyone is taking their time, trying to get this right.

CORNISH: After all, wrangling over the budget for 2012 has already begun.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.