TOPICS > Politics

Budget Battle Lines Drawn Over Spending, Planned Parenthood as Shutdown Nears

April 8, 2011 at 6:47 PM EST
Federal agencies prepared for a shutdown as negotiators struggled to reach a budget compromise. Jeffrey Brown discusses the latest on the budget talks with Todd Zwillich, Washington correspondent for WNYC radio.
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JIM LEHRER: The federal government made ready to close down, as negotiators struggled to reach a funding deal.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: The day began with leaders on each end of the Capitol sounding far apart on making a deal to avert a government shutdown, and even on their main points of disagreement.

Just 13 hours before the midnight deadline, House Speaker John Boehner said Democrats were not willing to cut enough.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, speaker of the House: There’s only one reason that we do not have an agreement as yet and that issue is spending. We’re close to a resolution on the policy issues, but I think the American people deserve to know, when will the White House and when will Senate Democrats get serious about cutting spending?

KWAME HOLMAN: After talks overnight, Boehner and his fellow Republicans still sought nearly $40 billion in cuts from government spending through September. Democrats said they could accept a $38 billion reduction, up from $34 billion yesterday.

But when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spoke, he charged the stalemate really was about Republican policy demands, especially on barring federal funds for Planned Parenthood.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: This is indefensible, and everyone should be outraged. Men and women should be outraged. The Republican House leadership have only a few hours left to look in the mirror, snap out of it and realize how positively shameful it would be, Mr. President.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans in the House have targeted Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion services. But Democrats counter that using federal funds to provide abortions already is prohibited under a provision known as the Hyde Amendment. They said cutting funds for Planned Parenthood would only hurt the group’s ability to provide other services, including contraceptive supplies and cancer screenings.

As the day progressed, lawmakers from both sides expressed growing frustration with the inability of party leaders to break the impasse. They said it showed how dysfunctional Congress had become.

SEN. BOB CORKER, R-Tenn.: It’s powder puff. It’s powder puff. We have got our nation at stake, and we’re sitting here, you know, yelling at each other, saying things we shouldn’t be saying to each other, that take us nowhere, over powder puff.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass., Foreign Relations Committee chairman: This is a dangerous moment for our economy and for our country. And, frankly, it’s an embarrassing moment for the Congress of the United States, an embarrassing moment for, I think, the American people, who have to watch their Congress struggling to do what we were sent here to do, which is compromise and find a way to do the business of our country.

KWAME HOLMAN: For his part, President Obama postponed a scheduled visit to Indiana today and monitored negotiations from the White House, speaking by phone with Boehner and Reid.

Still, by midday, no deal was ready when House Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: We’re not going to roll over and sell out the American people, like it’s been done time and time again here in Washington. When we say we’re serious about cutting spending, we’re damn serious about it.

KWAME HOLMAN: And after a private meeting of Senate Democrats, Reid charged Boehner was walking back from his agreement to accept $38 billion in spending cuts.

SEN. HARRY REID: I have the greatest confidence that John Boehner is having a difficult time in his caucus. And I give him — I can give him that. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have an agreement, when an agreement was reached.

I don’t know what happened last night, but as I indicated earlier today, at 4:00 in the morning, I got an email that saying, we have tried, but they have backed off the number they agreed to.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the event of a shutdown, members of Congress still would get paid, while furloughed government workers wouldn’t, and U.S. troops could see their paychecks delayed.

Lawmakers from both parties now have proposed legislation to cancel their salaries for as long as any shutdown lasts.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we get the very latest now from Todd Zwillich, who covers Washington for WNYC Radio. He joins us from Capitol Hill.

Well, Todd, where do things stand now? What is the latest on the possibility of a shutdown?

TODD ZWILLICH, WNYC radio: Well, the possibility of a shutdown is still very, very real, although, you know, deadlines do have a way of consolidating things around here. Every leader and every member of Congress knows that.

As Kwame’s report said, we started the day with a lot of heated rhetoric. Frankly, every day for the last four or five days has started with heated rhetoric. And then, at night, you tend to get a little more serious.

But I should say that, as the microphone speeches from Senator Reid and Speaker Boehner do get heated, the floor speeches are a bit heated, the talks go on in earnest. They’re on substance. Right now, there’s — it’s being characterized by members and by their staffs as this: a deal on a number to cut right around $38 billion dollars, to cut right away, immediately, in this fiscal year 2011.

And then there’s also the issue of Title X. Title X is women’s health funding that funds a lot of women’s health clinics, but the most important one, of course, Planned Parenthood. There’s a sliding scale between whether policy riders come and go and how much the cut is. Harry Reid has said that $38 billion is just as far as he will go, and that his foot is down.

Democrats have also said that Planned Parenthood is off the table. Harry Reid said on the floor that he takes it personally, and he just won’t do it. That’s where we’re at right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, are you suggesting, though, that this blame game that we keep hearing from both sides throughout the day and every day, really, is just for the public, and, behind the scenes, there are some substantive negotiations going on?

TODD ZWILLICH: I think, largely, that’s true.

Let’s keep in mind, this — this cutting of $38 billion or $40 billion or $32 billion, it’s really not about money. Yes, it’s about money, and Republicans do want to cut spending now and cut the deficit. That’s true. But there are fights coming after this that are about real money, like raising the debt limit, the federal government’s statutory ability to borrow. That’s going to be a huge debate.

There is a fiscal 2012 budget fight coming up, where we may even be talking about entitlements, Social Security and Medicare. There is major money at stake. What is going on now, this $30 billion or $40 billion, in the end, isn’t really about money. It’s about gaining the public’s confidence, for Republicans, that they are making good on their pledge to cut, cut big, and cut now. And on Democrats, that they are still in control of government, yes, they are willing to cut spending, they want to vote for cuts, but they want to be responsible, and they certainly don’t want to cut things like women’s health, let’s face it, a core Democratic voting issue.

Women Democratic voters and moderates in the polls say they don’t want Planned Parenthood cut.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, on that issue, on the Planned Parenthood issue, as Kwame pointed out, the Democrats are today saying that federal funds — federal law prohibits use of federal funds for abortion anyway.

What are Republicans responding to that, or are they at all, or are they just sticking to their — to their kind of broader numbers issue, numbers game?

TODD ZWILLICH: Republicans are trying to stick to the numbers issue, frankly, because they don’t want to buy into the Democratic message here, which is that the only thing standing between a deal and a shutdown is funding for Planned Parenthood.

There was a press conference earlier today with more than a dozen Republican women members of Congress. The word — the words Title X, Planned Parenthood, and abortion were not mentioned once. The mantra was this is about spending and deficits; that’s it. They don’t really want to talk about it, because they feel like they’re buying into a Democratic narrative.

But if you talk to them offline, their response is, yes, we do have the Hyde Amendment, yes, federal funding of abortion is already illegal, but when you fund an organization like Planned Parenthood, money is fungible. If Planned Parenthood gets $300 million a year, it’s true that they can’t take a pot of federal money and spend it directly on abortion. But they have more money to do the other things that they do.

And just like you have a household budget, and you have so much money for the things that you need based on what is coming in, money is fungible. Money comes in, money goes out. If somebody tells you, you can’t spend this $10 on tires, you will find another $10 to spend on tires.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as Kwame also reported, the president monitored things today, and he made phone calls individually to the two leaders. In past days, he has pulled them together, right, and pulled them, brought them into the White House…

TODD ZWILLICH: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … not today. Any word on why that did not happen today or has not happened so far?

TODD ZWILLICH: The last we heard from the president was from the podium in the Briefing Room last night at the White House, where he said he feels a deal is closer. He expects an answer in the morning.

I suspect that answer came from the majority lead this morning to say: We’re still talking, Mr. President, but we’re not there.

The president has not called them back. He may call them back later tonight. That’s always an option. He has to choose his moment when he really wants to push this over the line. Keep in mind, when you are president, you associate yourself with victory, not failure.

If the president is going to wade in once again, be on camera, be between these two gentleman and between the two parties, I think he wants to do it if a deal is at hand. If a deal is far apart, the government is going to shut down, the president would probably like to be at arm’s length this evening.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, Todd, do you still — do you see any possible signs that there still might be a very short-term, temporary solution of just a few days to buy time for more negotiations?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, the Senate is working on that very thing right now. They’re – Sen. Reid and Sen. McConnell, the Republican leader, are working on an agreement to allow for a short-term continuing resolution. It would be four or five days or a week long.

It would have cuts in it along the parameters — Congress has been cutting around $2 billion a week. It would stick to that formula. And it would be a bridge. The president has said he will not sign a short-term bill, if it means more negotiations. But if a deal is reached, and they’re just dotting I’s and crossing T’s, that’s fine, so that the government doesn’t have to shut down over the weekend.

That is what the Senate is working on right now. If they pass one tonight and send it to the House, then it would be up to the House to approve it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Todd Zwillich of WNYC Radio, thanks a lot.

TODD ZWILLICH: My pleasure.