WASHINGTON — The threat of a government shutdown at 12 a.m. Saturday ticked closer Thursday night as White House and congressional budget negotiators again failed to reach a deal.
But as the deadline neared, there were glimmers of hope that an agreement could be reached early Friday to fund the government through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
"We made some additional progress this evening," President Barack Obama said after his second negotiating session of the day with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"There's no certainty," Obama said, "but I expect an answer early in the day."
The White House said late Thursday that it would postpone Obama's previously scheduled trip to Indianapolis. Obama said he hopes he can announce to the American people early in the day a shutdown has been averted. But, Obama warned, "I'm not yet prepared to express wild optimism."
The congressional leaders issued a joint statement echoing Obama's sentiment.
"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," they said.
Any agreement would need to be approved by both Houses of Congress.
That's considered unlikely Friday, and some lawmakers prepared a short-term extension that could allow them to keep the government open over the weekend, and then take final votes on the longer-term package next week.
Throughout Thursday, the two sides were close on spending cuts, but not on social policy restrictions favored by Republicans.
"We pretty much have a consensus on the right level of cuts and where they should come from," said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer of New York.
But Democrats struggled to overcome Republican insistence on provisions to block funds for environmental and women's health programs.
"We have been against them from the beginning and we're not changing, nor should we. These are fights that have nothing to do with the deficit," Schumer said.
The Republican-dominated House of Representatives added to the growing tension as it defied a presidential veto threat and approved a new plan to keep the government open for a week while also cutting $12 billion from domestic spending and fully funding the Pentagon for the remaining six months of this fiscal year.
The Democratic-majority Senate is certain to reject those terms, and the White House said Obama would veto it if it ever reached his desk.
If no deal is reached by midnight Friday, the government will be out of money. Essential federal services would continue, such as law enforcement, Social Security checks and mail delivery. Military troops would remain on duty, but would get paid retroactively.
But national parks and museums would close, and an estimated 800,000 federal civilian employees classified as "non-essential" would be furloughed. Most federal agencies would see their operations closed or curtailed.
Democrats had offered to cut $33 billion in spending over the final six months of this fiscal year; Republicans, who originally sought $61 billion, sought $40 billion going into the final talks.
Obama signaled that he's willing to accept some social policy changes as part of a deal, but he, like other Democrats, draws the line at changes to abortion policy, federal funding for environmental programs or Planned Parenthood, which provides women's health counseling.
The White House thinks Boehner is under pressure to stand firm because Republican incumbents fear conservative tea party primary challenges next year if they compromise with Democrats on spending priorities.
The fight over fiscal 2011 is the opening salvo in what's likely to be a yearlong political confrontation over spending. Republicans won control of the House last year with a pledge to slash the size of government, and next week they plan to vote on a package that would cut $6.2 trillion from anticipated spending over the next 10 years.
Lawmakers from both parties urged a deal to resolve the current year's stalemate quickly so that they can concentrate on the longer term.
While many officials were confident Thursday evening that a final compromise was within reach, details still had to be determined, and concern was growing that the government could endure its first shutdown in 15 years.
Without a deal, said Reid, "we'll of course have to look forward to a bad day tomorrow, which is a government shutdown."
The politicians also prepared to deflect blame.
While the negotiators met, the House took its own partisan step to keep the government open, voting 247-181 for the one-week funding bill. Their plan, supported by 232 Republicans and 15 Democrats, but opposed by 175 Democrats and six Republicans, would cut $12 billion from this year's spending but keep the Pentagon funded for the entire fiscal year.
Democrats used the bill to paint Republicans as pawns of the tea party, the grassroots conservative movement that helped elect dozens of congressional Republicans last year.
"I think John Boehner is fighting the right wing within his own party. The John Boehner I used to know would have tried to work out a deal that was fair," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
"It's such a stupid thing to have happen," McGovern said of a potential government shutdown. "I hope the Republicans become more sensible in the next few hours. But just in case, I'm going to church to light a candle."
Republicans, saying they weren't eager for a shutdown, insisted they had taken tough steps to cut spending, only to be blocked by Democrats trying to score political points.
"We are opposed to the status quo," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. "We want to get our fiscal house in order."
Why not at least vote to support the troops, asked Rep. C. W. Bill Young, R-Fla. "They're not doing their job," he said of Democrats. "What they're doing — they're running the 2012 elections on the backs of the military."
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