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Focus shifts to averting government shutdown

GOP talks of moving back March 27 deadline, working on budget

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders, continuing to reject tax hikes, indicated on Sunday that they would like to reopen negotiations for a deal that reduces spending on entitlement programs. But there was no sign the parties were actively trying to reverse the $85 billion in cuts triggered on Friday.

Instead, the next round of negotiations is expected to center on congressional action regarding the federal budget and a broader discussion about an overhaul of the tax code and entitlements.

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Gene Sperling, director of the White House National Economic Council, said Sunday that President Obama had worked during the weekend calling Republican and Democratic senators to join what he believes can be a “caucus for common sense” regarding the budget.

“The president is free to call whoever he chooses to,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday morning.

But, the Kentucky Republican said, “so far I haven’t heard a single Senate Republican say they are willing to raise a dime in taxes to turn off the sequester.”

House Speaker John Boehner repeated his stance in an interview with David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“The president got his tax hikes on January 1,” said the Ohio Republican, referring to the $600 billion in taxes that came out of Washington’s last fiscal crisis. “The issue here is spending. Spending is out of control. There are smarter ways to cut spending than the silly sequester the president demanded.”

Despite the philosophical standoff over how to deal with the nation’s debt crisis, Boehner and McConnell expressed willingness to call a long-enough truce with their Democratic colleagues to allay fears of a government shutdown at the end of the month. A previous deal to fund government’s routine functions expires March 27.

The House this week will vote to extend the continuing resolution to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, before beginning work on a budget for the next fiscal year, Boehner said.

Boehner is uncertain how the nation’s larger budget issues will get resolved, but said, “I’m hopeful that the House and Senate will be able to work through this.”

“The House has done a budget every year that I’ve been speaker,” Boehner said. “The Senate hasn’t done a budget for four years. They’ve committed to do a budget this year. And I hope that they do. And out of that discussion and out of that process, maybe we can find a way to deal with our long-term spending problem.”

McConnell said he believes both Republicans and Democrats will agree in coming weeks to continue funding the government at the lower level of spending mandated by the sequestration, which cuts spending by 2.4 percent over the next six months.

But some conservatives have called for threatening a government shutdown unless Democrats readily agree to entitlement cuts, defunding Obama’s health care reform law, and a lower tax base.

Sperling, who made the Sunday talk show rounds on CNN, NBC, and ABC, said Obama will continue working the phones, talking to Democrats who understand that the country needs to make “serious progress” on long-term entitlement reform and Republicans who are willing to raise revenue and take part in a bipartisan compromise.

“He’s making those calls to see where there might be a coalition of the willing, a caucus for common sense, and trying to build trust, so he’s going to be having a lot more conversations like that,” Sperling told CNN’s Candy Crowley.

Obama has already signaled he would be willing to cut $400 billion out of Medicare over the next decade in part by asking wealthier seniors to pay higher premiums, Sperling said.

“These are tough things the president agreed to,” he said on “Meet the Press,” emphasizing that Obama is committed to preventing a government shutdown.

“The president doesn’t believe in manufacturing another crisis.”

Former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who was the lone Republican in the state’s Congressional delegation when he was in office, said on Fox News Sunday, where he is now a political commentator, that members were told sequestration would never happen. Obama himself has previously said the same.

“I was there, I voted for it, and it was told to us, ‘Hey, listen, we are going to make this draconian deal that no one is going to want to see. . . . We’re going to do our jobs and don’t worry, we’ll take care of it’ and they didn’t,” Brown said. “So revenues were never part of it, it was strictly obviously finding the appropriate cuts, and the problem is that there is plenty of blame to go around.”

The White House has taken a beating in recent days over false claims about sequestration’s origins and exaggerated claims about its impact.

Asked about the odd public spat with Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, who wrote that the sequester originated in the White House despite Obama’s previous claim that Congress came up with it, Sperling yesterday said Republicans were the ones who ensured that it would only contain spending cuts.

Sperling, on “Meet the Press,” evoked the image of the White House being held hostage by Republicans when he compared the sequester to a mugger asking for a victim’s wallet but being offered a watch instead.

“Well, technically, giving your watch was your idea, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story,” Sperling said.

Sperling also backed away from earlier claims by the administration about the swift and onerous effect of the budget cuts. Obama had wrongly said Friday that Capitol janitors and security guards faced an immediate pay cut.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, too, misled the public with his comments about pink slips being issued to teachers in one West Virginia school system.

“These are very harsh cuts that were designed to never go into effect” as a way to force both sides back to the table to finish a grand bargain, Sperling said. But “there’s no question that on day one that it will not be as harmful as it will be over time.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.
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