WASHINGTON â€“â€“ The prospect of a government shutdown loomed larger on Capitol Hill on Thursday when Republicans leaders ruled out the easiest path around a budget impasse and Democrats accused them of playing a dangerous game of chicken.
Tensions over funding the government for the rest of this year escalated as House Republicans crept closer to approval of a massive package of spending cuts to social services, environmental programs, foreign aid and research.
The package, amounting to more than $61 billion, is five times larger than any previous discretionary budget reduction proposed in the House, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Thursday, and makes good on a Republican campaign promise to make swift and substantial cuts to spending.
But the plan is unlikely to get far when it moves to the Democratic-led Senate.
It also has been rejected by the Obama administration as potentially harmful to the frail economic recovery.
The resulting stalemate comes with a firm deadline: Current funding for the government expires on March 4.
With the House still debating the GOP package, Democrats had widely expected Republican leaders to agree to temporarily extend current spending levels, giving both sides more time to negotiate.
But Boehner on Thursday rejected that approach outright, saying he would not allow a stop-gap measure that did not include cuts.
â€œWhen we say weâ€™re going to cut spending, read my lips: Weâ€™re going to cut spending,â€ he told reporters.
Boehnerâ€™s blunt declaration immediately turned up the heat on the spending talks and appeared to derail what many had seen as the obvious way to buy time.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested it was evidence that Boehner â€œcanâ€™t control the votes in his caucusâ€ and had resorted to â€œthreatsâ€ of a shutdown. â€œItâ€™s not permissible. We will not stand for that,â€ Reid said. Democrats argued that a resolution extending the budget at current levels would already include spending reductions. Roughly $41 billion in cuts was included when the current spending plan was put in place by the last Congress.
That argument is unlikely to placate the most ardent budget hawks in the Republican House, who already have successfully pushed their leadership to dig deeper into non-defense spending.
These lawmakers, many of them freshmen, have shown a near-singular focus on shrinking the size of the government and share an uncompromising ethos.
Many took the $61 billion offered in the GOP bill as a mere starting point and have proposed hundreds of amendments to further reduce spending.
Debate on those amendments went in the wee hours early Thursday morning and crept forward at a laborious pace all day. Lawmakers late Thursday were braced to work well into the night without a scheduled vote in sight.
In early votes, the House voted to take $20 million out of the National Endowment for the Arts and to cut the remaining $15 million out of a trust fund for the Presidio historic site in San Francisco.