Mixed Messages on a Possible Budget Deal

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Someone is lying. Or spinning us mercilessly, if you prefer to be charitable. A little after 2 PM, Harry Reid stepped in front of a slate of cameras to accuse House Republicans of “wanting to shut down the federal government over women’s access to health care.” If that sounds ridiculous, Reid added, “it is ridiculous.”

Not true, says John Boehner. After a noon GOP conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol, the House Speaker hewed to his party’s message. “Most of the policy issues have been dealt with,” Boehner said. “The big fight is over the spending.”

For the most part, the Republicans trickling out of the meeting hewed to their leader’s line. “The stumbling block is money,” says Rep. Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight. By all accounts, the parties are close — if not united — on that count. Earlier Friday, Reid reported that Boehner had offered $38 billion in spending cuts during a Thursday night meeting at the White House—a figure Democrats accepted. While Reid accused Boehner of welching on a deal because of pressure from his right flank, Republicans say the deal hasn’t been sealed. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said there was still daylight on both the total tally and where the cuts would come from. “The riders have been dealt with,” Rogers added.

But if so, how? Operating under the assumption that any information disseminated at the conference meeting — at whose doors a battery of reporters lurked, waiting to buttonhole exiting Congressmen — would leak like a sieve, Boehner largely withheld details of the negotiations from his members, according to several Republicans. Rogers said about a dozen members spoke during the conference meeting, which had a positive tenor. The party, he said, has coalesced behind Boehner’s attempts to wring every cent from Democrats before the midnight deadline.

But some Republicans bristled at the notion that the contentious policy issues have basically been dispensed with. Asked whether the impasse was about money or ideology, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the chair of the House Republican Study Committee, replied, “It’s about all of it.”

“It’s always been the riders,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, among the party’s outspoken social conservatives.  “I don’t see another place where we have the leverage we had on the CR” to de-fund “Obamacare,” King said.

With time ticking away, leaders of both parties say they’re hopeful that a compromise can be forged. Perhaps the highest hurdle is neither ideological nor monetary. It’s that both parties are skittish about caving on the first in a series of bare-knuckle brawls over the budget. This battle is for the long term. This is almost like the opening skirmish,” says Rob Bishop of Utah.

“When we say we’re serious about cutting spending,” Boehner said, “we’re damn serious.”