Urgent efforts to avert a government shutdown at midnight faltered yesterday over Republican initiatives to freeze climate rules, a challenge to the president's environmental priorities at the outset of his re-election bid.
Controversial policy provisions meant to defund U.S. EPA's rulemaking for greenhouse gas emissions and abortion programs are the key obstacles to negotiating a government funding package through September, Senate Democrats and administration officials said yesterday.
"The numbers are basically there," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said of the $33 billion that Democrats are willing to cut over the next six months. "The only thing holding up an agreement is ideology."
Federal agencies are running on funding fumes, and the White House issued a stark warning to public employees that using BlackBerrys is forbidden during a shutdown. EPA officials, meanwhile, carved out a four-hour window for workers to rescue plants and other personal belongings from shuttered public buildings.
"It is illegal to volunteer," Jeffrey Zients of the White House Office of Management and Budget, who's overseeing shutdown plans, said of an estimated 800,000 public employees. "If there is a shutdown, it would have very real effects on the services the American people rely on, as well as on the economy as a whole."
Both political parties blamed the other for pushing agencies to the brink of closing. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) denied that the impasse is caused by the policy provisions on the environment and abortion. More cuts -- "real spending cuts," he said -- are needed before Republicans can agree to a budget for the remaining fiscal year.
But he made it clear that policy riders are also a key component to winning Republican consent.
"There is no agreement on a number," Boehner said yesterday at midday. "There are a number of issues that are on the table. Any attempt to try to narrow this down to one or two just would not be accurate."
But Democrats near the negotiations believe Boehner is publicly declaring that more cuts are needed to appease tea party adherents while diluting the focus on riders that many voters might view as extreme.
"I know exactly what's been going on in those negotiations, and the [dollar] number and what to cut is not standing in the way," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat. "Speaker Boehner doesn't want to sign off on [the spending cuts] because then he would just be focused on the riders. But it's the riders that's the whole issue."
'Pig through the python'
House Republicans, meanwhile, sought to insulate themselves from the consequences of a possible shutdown tonight by passing a weeklong funding bill yesterday that cuts $12 billion in spending over seven days, including $632 million from energy and water programs, and defunds abortion-related programs. It also provides military funding through September.
That will allow Republicans to blame the president and his party for failing to follow the House's leadership if the government closes.
But the White House was also raising the stakes. It issued a veto warning before Congress passed the spending bill yesterday, calling it a "distraction" from the longer funding effort. Reid likewise said the Senate would not consider the measure.
The maneuvering yesterday reflects the aggressive negotiating tactics of each side. Yet even as lawmakers were scouting strong positions publicly, they continued to meet privately. By yesterday evening, Obama had commenced three meetings in 24 hours with Boehner and Reid.
Obama told reporters at 9:33 last night that he, Boehner and Reid had failed to strike an agreement after their third meeting in the Oval Office. But he said "some additional progress" had been made and that he expects to know if a shutdown will occur relatively early today.
"But there is still a few issues that are outstanding," he said. "They’re difficult issues. They’re important to both sides. And so I’m not yet prepared to express wild optimism. But I think we are further along today than we were yesterday."
"We have narrowed the issues, however, we have not yet reached an agreement. We will continue to work through the night to attempt to resolve our remaining differences," the two legislators said in a joint statement last night.
That makes an agreement possible today, a scenario that could lead to a one-, two- or three-day spending measure -- enough time to "push that pig through the python," as White House press secretary Jay Carney described a bipartisan agreement. That could avert even a weekend-long shutdown.
But the pitfalls are numerous. Although Democrats highlight just two Republican obstacles to an agreement -- riders on EPA and abortion -- those challenges can include multiple provisions.
Republicans say that all 68 amendments attached to their budget-cutting bill, H.R. 1, passed in February are in play during the deadline negotiations. The riders scissor funding from an array of programs, but the emphasis is on EPA regulations and environmental policies.
Riders not worth a shutdown
Nineteen of the provisions cut cash in those areas. They roll back $8.4 million that's designated for the EPA greenhouse gas registry, end new rules by the Department of Interior to locate surface mines farther from streams, block EPA efforts to increase ethanol, and defund the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, among others.
"All of the H.R. 1 riders -- all of them," Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said yesterday when asked which provisions were being pursued in the negotiations.
Schumer, too, said that Republicans were pushing for several EPA provisions in the compromise. "They have a whole list of riders," he said.
That might be a shrewd negotiating position, but it's far from what will ever be accepted. Senior Republican lawmakers said yesterday that they expect much less.
"I don't think anybody anticipated that all of the EPA riders ... would stay in whatever final bill is dealt with," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment. "Which ones will stay in, which ones won't, I don't know. They're talking about those things now."
Although some GOP freshmen might view the anti-EPA measures as a critical component to the defunding bill, more experienced lawmakers believe it's more trouble than it's worth if it invites a shutdown.
"When we're trying to keep the government operating, I personally, certainly, would accept something that did not include riders on it," said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
Reporters Tiffany Stecker and Dina Fine Maron contributed.