Despite fresh pressure from tea party conservatives, House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that Republicans "can't impose our will" on the White House and Senate Democrats on legislation to cut tens of billions of dollars in federal spending.
At a news conference, Boehner, R-Ohio, denied Democratic suggestions that he has already agreed to jettison nearly half of the $61 billion in cuts passed by the House a month ago.
But as was the case with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., earlier in the week, he did not say the demand was non-negotiable. "Our goal is to cut spending, not shut down the government," he said.
The government is running on the second of two short-term spending bills, and at the insistence of Republicans, a total of $10 billion has been cut so far.
Without action by Congress, the money will run out on April 9. Lawmakers are seeking a compromise that will extend to the Sept. 30 end of the spending year.
Senior House and Senate aides, experts in the intricacies of spending legislation, met during the day to explore a possible compromise.
Yet officials in both parties said Democrats had not yet provided Republicans with a detailed list of their proposed cuts, an indication that negotiations were not far along.
Democratic officials added that some of their proposed reductions would cut $3 billion or so from the Pentagon budget. The House-passed legislation calls for an increase in defense spending, and reserves spending cuts for domestic programs.
Boehner spoke as tea party activists demonstrated within shouting distance of the Capitol and a pair of potential GOP presidential contenders injected themselves into the first big test for the GOP majority elected last fall.
A few hundred protesters bore signs demanding that the Republican majority they helped vote into office remain true to campaign pledges.
"Remember your promises — WE DO," read one. "Extreme spending requires extreme cuts," was another.
They drew encouragement from several Republican lawmakers.
"Stay courageous and I know you will. Don't back down and I know you won't," Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a potential presidential contender, exhorted on a cold, drizzly day.
"We will stand for cutting the size of government we won't change our principle," she said.
Separately, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, another White House hopeful, met behind closed doors with first-term Republicans.
As speaker, Gingrich led the party into twin shutdowns more than a decade ago that wound up damaging the party politically. He has recently written that the confrontation during the Clinton administration paved the way for a balanced budget agreement a few years later. But he leaves out that, as part of the deal, conservative Republicans were forced to create a new government benefit program — health care for millions of lower-income children — that President Bill Clinton demanded.
Boehner was a junior member of the leadership when Gingrich was party leader in the House. Now the leader of a rambunctious majority, his comments marked a public hint of flexibility two days after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid offered one of his own.
On Tuesday, the Nevada Democrat said his side in the talks was willing to consider limitations on government regulators as well as other non-spending items the House seeks. In exchange, Democrats would expect Republicans to scale back on their demands for spending cuts.
He did not identify any, but other officials have said curbs on the Environmental Protection Agency and other government regulators were likely candidates. Another is a proposed ban on the use of government funds to pay for abortions for poor women living in the District of Columbia.
Additionally, Boehner has made a personal priority of a measure the House passed earlier this week to reinstate school vouchers for District of Columbia students. The program is the only one in the country that uses federal tax dollars to subsidize private-school tuition.
While the showdown over spending has dominated Congress in recent days, it is only the first in a series of collisions expected in the coming months as the Republicans push to rein in the size and scope of government.
House Republicans are expected to unveil a budget for the next fiscal year next week that includes deep spending cuts in domestic programs as well as steps to remake Medicare and Medicaid. Officials have said that in private conversations, Republicans have set an informal target of reducing budget deficits to $1 trillion over 10 years, down from about $1.5 trillion for the current year.
Details unseen, Democrats are already eager to attack it as too harsh. But conservatives in the Republican Study Conference are expected to outline an alternative with even tighter deficit cuts.
The Treasury also has put lawmakers on notice that an increase in the government's borrowing authority will be needed later this spring. Some conservatives have already announced they will oppose any such measure, while others have laid down conditions that appear unlikely to be met.
Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have said the GOP will demand changes to rein in future spending before the increase can pass.