With 16 hours to go

WITH 16 HOURS TO GO…. Last night, President Obama hosted a fourth round of budget talks with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), which wrapped up with the same message we’ve heard quite a bit — they’re making progress, but there’s no deal.

Among the many frustrating aspects of these developments is recognizing that “news,” in this case, is “no news.” The relevant players keep talking, but the barriers to an agreement are unyielding. Republicans still want a few more billion in cuts, the elimination of family planning services, and to restrict enforcement of the Clean Air Act. And Democrats still aren’t prepared to accept those demands.

So we wait … and watch the clock.

On the one hand, the GOP’s culture-war agenda is playing a dominant role in preventing a compromise from coming together.

Behind the scenes, aides on Capitol Hill said a deal is within reach but both Boehner and Reid must take the parameters of it back to their colleagues for approval. For most of Thursday, the two sides squabbled over policy issues, primarily abortion, instead of dollars and cents.

House Republicans want to take all federal funds slated for Planned Parenthood and other family planning organizations and give it to state health departments to use as they see fit. That way, states controlled by Republican legislatures would choose not to give that money to Planned Parenthood while state capitals controlled by Democrats would keep things status quo.

Republicans also want to prohibit payments for abortions overseas — a policy that was overturned by an executive order from Obama. Another rider would end the United States’ contribution to the United Nations Population Fund, which focuses on reproductive health, according to a report in the New York Times.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) summarized it this way: “This is no longer about the budget deficit. It’s about bumper stickers.”

On the other hand, there are also reports that Republicans are using these social-issue riders as bargaining chips, which they’re willing to trade away for more cuts to public investments.

Publicly, Boehner and Reid continue to argue over Republican demands that any deal include restrictions on abortion funding and environmental regulations. Democrats oppose such restrictions. Privately, both sides acknowledge that these may turn out to be bargaining chips that the GOP will ultimately remove from a final agreement in exchange for deeper cuts or other concessions.

What’s going to happen? It’s tempting to think this is an elaborate game of chicken, and now that the deadline is here, someone will blink. Indeed, as we discussed yesterday, Boehner may very well be pushing this to the very last minute deliberately, in the hopes he can wring a few billion more out of Dems and impress his right-wing caucus.

But those hoping for 11th-hour heroics are likely to be disappointed. Staffers met until 3 a.m., haggling over details, and rumor has it they went home no closer to a deal than before.

For his part, a frustrated President Obama talked to reporters late last night, and said that while “differences have been narrowed,” he’s not prepared to express “wild optimism.” After explaining why it’s so important to avoid a shutdown, the president added, “I expect an answer in the morning…. There’s no certainty yet, but I expect an answer sometime early in the day.”

Keep expectations low.