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House, Senate Stalemate Over Spending Bill Days Before Potential Shutdown

Speaker John Boehner (r) with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Sept. 23, 2011.
Susan Walsh
Speaker John Boehner (r) with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Sept. 23, 2011.

Speaker John Boehner didn't provide much reason Friday to hope that efforts to avert a federal government shutdown next week wouldn't go to the 11th hour like all congressional spending negotiations since last November's election.

Asked at a brief availability with journalists in the House Press Gallery if he had talked with Sen. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who sets the Senate's agenda, Boehner said:

"I had a conversation with the Senate majority leader before I came down. There wasn't much progress made."

Just to underscore that, shortly after Boehner's appearance before reporters the Democrat-controlled Senate killed the $1.043 trillion temporary spending bill that the Republican-controlled House passed hours before to fund the government past the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

That Senate Democrats would largely reject the House bill because it contained spending cuts the Senate majority found objectionable was a foregone conclusion.

But Senate Democrats were joined in the 59 to 36 vote (five senators didn't vote) by several Republicans associated with the Tea Party movement, including Sen. Jim DeMint of S.C., Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who voted against the bill. Some Tea Party affiliated Republicans oppose the bill because the cuts aren't big enough as far as they're concerned.

In the House, the bill passed with almost no Democratic support on a 219-203 vote. Democrats opposed Republican's insistence that $3.65 billion in emergency FEMA disaster relief in the bill be partly offset by savings elsewhere, namely $1.5 billion from an Energy Department manufacturing loan fund to help auto manufacturers make more fuel-efficient cars.

Democrats argued that the cuts to the advanced automotive technology program would cost existing and future jobs.

Both Democrats and Republicans accused each other of playing politics.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Reid's second in command:

We shouldn't play politics with disasters. Each one of us at
this end of the room have been through it. We've had disasters in our own states, and we know what it means. A lot of people are facing the worst experience of their lives, losing their homes, losing their businesses, wondering if they'll have a roof over their heads.

Each and every time that's happened in my service in Congress, we
have rallied behind those victims of disasters.

Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader and Durbin's counterpart in the House, said:

Harry Reid is holding a bill up with full funding of what is needed right now for no reason — no reason but for politics. Again, this is why the people just don't have the respect for this institution and this town anymore.

House GOP leaders failed to get the bill approved Wednesday when 48 Republicans voted "no" because the legislation in their view didn't include enough spending cuts.

Boehner and his leadership team, however, were able to gain House passage after they added more spending cuts, $110 million from the program that funded the ill-fated Solyndra solar energy company.

Solyndra is at the heart of a White House controversy over the how much of a role Obama administration officials played in the now bankrupt company getting a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

Congress was scheduled to be out on recess next week for a Jewish holiday. But the impasse raised the prospect of Congress remaining at least through the weekend to try and reach some agreement.

So long as Republicans control the House and Democrats the Senate and White House, a basic dynamic appears to be set. On any must-pass legislation, the House GOP will attach spending cuts Democrats find objectionable and reject in turn. A stalemate happens with both sides staring each other down.

Only when an epic failure of government is at the threshold, a government shutdown or debt default, will a compromise be reached.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.