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White House draws line in the sand on spending

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The Obama administration drew a pretty hard line yesterday, telling Congress that Paul Ryan's House Republican budget includes spending levels that break a bipartisan deal, and if GOP lawmakers don't back down, they'll force a government shutdown later this year.

Acting White House Budget Director Jeff Zients wrote to the heads of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees on Wednesday to lay down the threat.

"Until the House of Representatives indicates that it will abide by last summer's agreement, the President will not be able to sign any appropriations bills," the letter states.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers's (R-Ky.) office said the "hollow" threat would not deter the committee and said refusal to sign spending bills would mean Obama was choosing to shut down the government.

This may seem like routine saber rattling, and it's possible the posturing won't amount to much in the coming months. But there's also a real possibility that we're headed for a major confrontation.

For those just joining us, these spending levels weren't supposed to be controversial at all. Last summer, as part of the debt-ceiling crisis, Democrats and Republicans agreed to spending levels for the upcoming year, clearing the way for a smooth budget process. After all, with the figures already locked in, the most contentious part of the process was already addressed. As far as everyone was concerned, a deal's a deal.

Then House Republican leaders, pushed by their more extreme caucus, decided to break the deal -- and that has set the stage for a potential crisis.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan approved a plan that cut $19 billion in spending beyond the cuts already agreed to, with Republicans ignoring the terms of the agreement they struck and promised to honor. (When defense spending is factored in, the GOP actually makes $28 billion in new cuts.)

The White House weighed in on this for the first time yesterday, effectively telling GOP officials that President Obama expects Republicans to stick to their own deal -- and if they don't, there will be a government shutdown two months before the November elections.

Republicans seem to believe the president will back down, and give the GOP what it wants, because he won't want a shutdown, but the administration's statement yesterday makes it quite clear Obama will honor the bipartisan agreement -- and if Republicans don't, the shutdown is on them.

Cooler heads will probably prevail. Indeed, if the right-wing GOP lawmakers shut down the government in September, it might even help Obama politically and put the House Republican majority in jeopardy. But for now, the endgame is unclear, and both sides are saying they won't yield.