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Time's up: Obama, GOP scramble to halt shutdown

WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats failed to reach agreement in middle-of-the-night talks in the Capitol as the government moved closer today to a midnight shutdown that all sides say would inconvenience millions of people and damage a fragile economy.

Republicans said the principal hang-up in the negotiations centered on the size of the spending cuts to be included in any deal to fund the government through September, when the current budget year ends. Democrats said the GOP's demands on social issues, including denying federal dollars for Planned Parenthood, were at the heart of the deadlock.

"It's an ideological battle," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "It has nothing to do with the fiscal integrity of this country."

Barring an agreement or perhaps another temporary bill to keep the government operating, the shutdown of most of the government would begin at midnight. Many essential workers, such as mail carriers, air traffic controllers and the military, would stay on the job.

It was unclear whether the top leaders in Congress, Reid and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would return today to the White House, where they've met with Obama three times in the past two days.


Staff-level talks involving the White House and the two lawmakers' offices resumed this morning.

Democrats said the deadlock was all about a GOP demand to deny federal dollars for Planned Parenthood, which uses the taxpayer money to offer contraception and health care for women. Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest provider of abortion assistance. Democrats asserted that House Republicans were holding out for getting some language to restrict abortion and suggested the GOP might accept a deal on a different abortion-related measure instead, such as an effort to restrict U.S. aid to overseas family planning groups that perform abortion.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said that "the largest issue is still spending cuts."

The aides were trying to cobble together a deal on how much federal spending to slash, where to cut it and what caveats to attach as part of a bill to fund the government through Sept. 30. A temporary federal spending measure expires at midnight.

Real consequences

For a nation eager to trim to federal spending but also weary of Washington bickering, the spending showdown had real implications.

A closure would mean the furloughs of hundreds of thousands of workers and the services they provide, from processing many tax refunds to approving business loans. Medical research would be disrupted, national parks would close and most travel visa and passport services would stop, among many others.

Throughout Thursday, the president, Reid and Boehner bargained and blustered by turns, struggling to settle their differences while maneuvering to avoid any political blame if they failed.


With the economy just now beginning to create jobs in large numbers, the president said a shutdown would damage the recovery.

"For us to go backwards because Washington couldn't get its act together is just unacceptable," he said.

Republicans passed legislation through the House at midday to fund the Pentagon for six months, cut $12 billion in domestic spending and keep the federal bureaucracy humming for an additional week.

"There is absolutely no policy reason for the Senate to not follow the House in taking these responsible steps to support our troops and to keep our government open," Boehner said.

Obama flashed a veto threat even before the bill passed on a 247-181, mostly party-line vote. The administration issued a statement calling it "a distraction from the real work" of agreeing on legislation to cover the six months left in the current fiscal year, and there was no indication Reid would allow a vote on it.

Narrowing the gap

As they left the White House after the evening meeting, Reid and Boehner issued a brief written statement that said they had narrowed their disagreements and said they would "continue to work through the night to attempt to resolve" the remaining ones.

This morning, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that talks have progressed "70 percent of the way on the numbers," but said the two sides are still squabbling about Republican riders to the legislation that would change abortion and environmental policy.


"There's no deal yet," he said on NBC's "Today" show. Hoyer blamed Republicans, saying that "when we were in charge of the House and had disagreements with George Bush, we compromised." He said he's "embarrassed" that Congress has put the country on the brink of shutdown, calling it "inappropriate."

Republicans want deeper spending cuts than the Democrats favor and also are pressing for provisions to cut off federal funds to Planned Parenthood and stop the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing numerous anti-pollution regulations.

"They're difficult issues. They're important to both sides and so I'm not yet prepared to express wild optimism," the president said.

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