The White House dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Capitol Hill Thursday in an effort to bring feuding Democrats and Republicans to the negotiating table over funding the federal government through Sept. 30.
But an hour after Biden went behind closed doors with the Hill's "Big Four" -- House Speaker John Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- the participants emerged with little more than an agreement to allow the Senate to vote on the parties' wildly divergent budget-cutting proposals and an unusually short written statement from the famously verbose vice president.
"We had a good meeting, and the conversation will continue," the statement read.
The conversation Biden spoke of had begun earlier in the day with a bitter disagreement between the parties -- not only over how much money should be cut from this year's $4 trillion budget, but even over how much had already been trimmed.
Gene Sperling, the director of the president's National Economic Council, offered an additional $6.5 billion cut from the current budget. Along with $4 billion in cuts Congress approved earlier this week, Sperling said Democrats will have eliminated $50 billion in spending from President Obama's original budget proposal for the fiscal year. (That total reflects a default cut of $40 billion in December's continuing resolution, which locked in 2010 spending levels.)
Pelosi weighed in on the numbers, saying that the figure proved that Democrats would "meet Republicans halfway" toward their original goal of cutting $100 billion for the year.
But the GOP, led by Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, balked at the Democrats' numbers, saying their cuts will be to real budget numbers for the year, not something based on what the president had hoped to spend.
Cantor also called this week's $4 billion agreement nothing more than a start toward the $57 billion more they plan to cut this year, one week at a time, if necessary, until the Democrats agree to negotiate on larger cuts.
Cantor told Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer on the House floor: "I would expect the House to continue its process of cutting $2 billion a week until we can see where the gentleman's caucus, and then the Democratic leader in the Senate" are.
Beyond the disagreement over how much to slice from the budget, the two sides had little common ground Thursday over which federal programs to target to get the billions in savings they are seeking.
Pelosi called Republican-sponsored efforts to cut child nutrition, education and programs like Planned Parenthood non-starters.
"If the cuts are about undermining the education of our children, harming the creation of jobs, and also undermining our economic recovery, I think we have to subject those cuts to some pretty harsh scrutiny," she said.
Hoyer also stood his ground, saying the Republicans were showing no willingness to compromise.
"If that's the position, then I think we will not be able to reach agreement," he said.
As the two sides squabble over the billions they will or won't cut in 2011, all involved acknowledge that the current budget battle only serves as a staging ground for the much larger battles to come over the country's $14 trillion debt and the looming crises with entitlement spending that Congress will have to address in the near future.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal
hours before the meeting with Biden, Boehner said that he plans to offer a budget for the next year that would begin to rein in the ballooning costs of Medicare and Social Security.
"People in Washington assume that Americans understand how big the problem is, but most Americans don't have a clue," he said. "Once they understand how big the problem is, I think people will be more receptive to what the possible solutions may be."
The speaker also offered a rare dose of optimism on the talks to solve the near-term budget impasse. "We can do this in two weeks," Boehner insisted. "I'm a glass-half-full guy."