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Government shutdown looms as congressional budget talks stall

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 2, 2011.

Updated: 3:43 p.m. ET

With less than two weeks left to avoid a government shutdown, Democratic lawmakers and White House officials are working to put together a budget proposal that would cut an additional $20 billion in spending, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Whether or not the additional $20 billion in reductions (on top of the $10 billion Democrats have already cut in the two stopgap spending) would be enough for Republicans, however, remains to be seen: the GOP faces growing pressure from conservative and Tea Party Republicans, who have pressed for much bigger cuts, a balanced budget and a refusal to compromise - even, some say, if that results in a shutdown.

In a statement on Monday, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was disappointed with the lack of progress so far, and charged that the division between mainstream Republicans and Tea Party members was "preventing us from reaching a responsible solution."

"I am extremely disappointed that after weeks of productive negotiations with Speaker Boehner, Tea Party Republicans are scrapping all the progress we have made and threatening to shut down the government if they do not get all of their extreme demands," Reid said. 

"The division between the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans is preventing us from reaching a responsible solution on a long-term budget that will make smart cuts while protecting American jobs, and prevented negotiations from taking place over the weekend even as the clock ticks toward a government shutdown," he continued.

In a statement to CBS News, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner argued that Democrats were trying to "divert attention" from their own internal divisions -- and said that their budget position was "essentially the status quo."

"The Democrats who run Washington are desperately trying to divert attention from their own divisions over cutting spending," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, in a statement. "Discussions with Senate Democrats and the White House over a long-term funding bill are ongoing and will continue, but the facts remain the same. The House passed a bill to fund the government while cutting spending, and - nearly 40 days later - the Senate has not."

"Senate Democrats' position is essentially the status quo, and the big-spending Washington status quo just isn't acceptable to the American people," he continued. 

Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, told Hotsheet she took issue with Reid's characterization of the division between some conservatives on the issue.

"I would challenge that 'mainstream Republicans' and [the Tea Party Patriots] are divided," she said. "Mike Pence is mainstream Republican and we agree with him."

Mark Meckler, also of the Tea Party Patriots, added that "Perhaps we are divided with Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy...but American sentiment seems to be on the side of major budget cuts." 

Initially, Rep. Paul Ryan unveiled a 2011 budget proposal that called for about $32 billion in cuts. But after demands from Tea Party Republicans for more far-reaching reductions, that number was nearly doubled - and the GOP-led House passed a budget bill in February calling for $61 billion worth of cuts from 2010 spending levels.

Democrats rejected that figure as excessive, arguing that such deep reductions could cause lasting negative impact to the economy. (Nebraska's Ben Nelson, a moderate Democrat, said bill had "too much hate.")

Congress has since passed two temporary spending bills in order to stave off a government shutdown, but negotiations on a long-term resolution have repeatedly stalled as Republicans and Democrats fail to come to an agreement over how to resolve the $51 billion discrepancy between the two parties' proposals.

Budget talks attempting to do just that came to a halt last week, after Republicans reportedly demanded the two parties use the GOP House bill as the starting point for negotiations. According to the Journal, Democrats involved in the negotiations had expected the discussion to start at current spending levels.

Republicans, meanwhile, are reportedly preparing a 2012 budget resolution that focuses on major cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

GOP leaders are also entreating Senate Republicans to support a constitutional amendment that would require the United States to balance the federal budget - a concession which, were it to succeed, might appease some conservatives who are protesting a compromise in the resolution of the budget.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch told Politico on Friday that the "time has more than come" to enact such a constitutional amendment. (Hatch led a charge to pass a similar measure in 1997, but the vote failed by one vote in the Senate.)

"Our national debt is over $14 trillion, and it's clear Washington can't fix this problem on its own," he said. "We need a constitutional amendment to force Washington to live within its means."