WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are reviewing possible spending cuts in drafting a seven-month bill to keep the government in operation after existing funding expires on March 4, officials said Thursday, the first time they have demonstrated a willingness to embrace immediate reductions.
These Democratic officials said about $8.5 billion remaining from previously approved congressional earmarks may be reduced or eliminated, and Democratic aides also are reviewing President Barack Obama's proposed program cuts and terminations for 2012 to see whether any should take effect immediately.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they are not authorized to discuss private deliberations.
The disclosure comes as the two parties maneuver for political position in advance of the March 4 deadline for legislation to keep the government in operation. The House passed legislation last week to extend funding authority through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year, including $61 billion in spending cuts and a blockade on selected federal regulations pending on private industries.
Democrats responded quickly, accusing tea party-backed lawmakers and other Republicans of seeking a government shutdown, and proposing instead to keep programs operating at current levels. GOP leaders countered that the only advocates for a shutdown are among the Democratic leadership in Congress.
The White House has threatened to veto the House measure, but has avoided accusations that Republicans want to shut the government down, emphasizing instead that the president wants to work with lawmakers in both parties in Congress to reduce federal deficits.
More recently, leaders of the two parties in Congress swapped competing proposals for an interim bill while negotiations continue on a compromise that would last through the end of the fiscal year. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced plans to advance a one-month bill at current spending levels, while House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, countered with a two-week bill that included $4 billion in cuts.
A spokesman for Boehner, Michael Steel, said the latest move by Democrats showed they were "making progress toward our goal of cutting government spending to help the private sector create jobs." He called on them to follow up by agreeing to support a short-term bill with spending cuts "rather than shutting down the government."
Obama's 2012 budget includes $24.7 billion in program reductions and terminations, and it was not immediately clear which of them might be included in the legislation Senate Democratic leaders send to the floor.
One candidate is an alternative engine for the Pentagon's next-generation fighter aircraft, a program that the White House and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates oppose, and that the House voted to jettison at a savings of about $450 million. Obama also has proposed a $2.5 billion reduction in energy assistance for the low-income, arguing that a recent spike in prices has dissipated. The proposal drew sharp criticism from some Democrats at the time it was disclosed.
Obama has also proposed a $1 billion reduction in a grant program for local airports and cuts in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects, as well as dozens of smaller reductions.
The development that Senate Democrats are considering immediate cuts — but only as part of a bill lasting until Sept. 30 — underscores that members of their own rank and file want to demonstrate a commitment to cutting federal deficits that goes beyond the five-year freeze in domestic spending that Obama included in his 2012 budget. Democrats have a majority in the Senate, 53-47, including independents who side with them, but several of the party's lawmakers are on the ballot in 2012 in swing states.
Federal deficits are estimated to reach a record $1.5 trillion, and Republicans won control of the House and gained Senate seats last fall on a promise of reducing spending and reining in the reach of the government.