Inching away from the budget brink?

INCHING AWAY FROM THE BUDGET BRINK?…. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) spoke behind closed doors to his caucus yesterday, and according to someone in the room, boasted to Republicans, “We’re gonna kick their ass.”

“They,” obviously, refers to Democrats. So much for graciousness and bipartisanship.

Did Boehner’s remarks signal heightened tensions and the increased likelihood of a government shutdown next week? Oddly enough, no. In fact, the opposite may be true. As Greg Sargent noted, Boehner’s chest-thumping bravado may have been a “signal to conservatives that he’s drawing a hard line in talks, partly because he knows that ultimately those talks will likely yield a deal that will be difficult to sell to them.”

What kind of deal? This kind of deal.

After weeks of arguing, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill began negotiations Wednesday on a possible budget agreement that would slash federal spending by as much as $33 billion and avert a government shutdown.

“We’re all working off the same number now,” Vice President Biden told reporters after meeting with Senate Democratic leaders at the Capitol on Wednesday evening. “Obviously, there’s a difference in the composition of that number — what’s included, what’s not included. It’s going to be a thorough negotiation.”

If approved, the deal would be the largest single-year budget cut in U.S. history.

At this point, there is no compromise plan and a deal has not been reached. What policymakers have reportedly agreed to is a target — Republicans wanted $61 billion in cuts; Democrats wanted $10 billion; so they’ll agree to $33 billion. That’s roughly what House GOP leaders originally wanted when the process began, before rank-and-file Republicans defied their own party’s leadership and demanded more.

The $33 billion in cuts would actually be $23 billion at this stage, since the last two temporary extensions already cut spending by about $10 billion. The challenge for policymakers at this point, then, is to identify the $23 billion that all parties can agree to.

But that’s not the only challenge. The next major hurdle is the “rider” issue. As if finding $23 billion in cuts wasn’t difficult enough, there are these unrelated policy amendments that would restrict federal agencies’ actions, which right-wing Republicans insist must be part of any deal.

These GOP “riders” cover everything from environmental protections to Planned Parenthood to implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Many House Republicans have said any compromise that doesn’t include “riders” will fail in the lower chamber, and Senate Democrats have said any compromise with them will fail in the upper chamber.

And then there’s the small matter of how any deal could actually pass the House anyway. The GOP caucus is dominated by a hysterical wing that has said it won’t even consider any compromise that fails to give them everything they want, and even if Republican leaders successfully bring in dozens of centrist Democrats, Boehner & Co. will still need the support of much of the GOP rank-and-file, which may or may not honor a deal reached by their party’s leadership.

These high hurdles notwithstanding, the odds of a shutdown appear to have gone down, at least a little, over the last 48 hours. The nominal progress could collapse at any moment, and ongoing talks may break down, but for now, the relevant players appear to be inching away from the cliff.