Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Democratic Senate leadership, got on a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning without realizing the reporters were already listening in. Schumer thought he was on a private line with four Democratic senators who were to talk with reporters about the current budget stalemate.
Schumer instructed the group, made up of Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Tom Carper of Delaware, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, to tell reporters that the GOP is refusing to negotiate.
He told the group to make sure they label the GOP spending cuts as "extreme."
"I always use extreme, Schumer said. "That is what the caucus instructed me to use."
Someone must have finally told Schumer that the media were listening and he stopped talking midsentence.
Here's a bit more of what he said about House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, according to my notes.
"The main thrust is basically that we want to negotiate and we want to come up with a compromise but the Tea Party is pulling Boehner too far over to the right and so far over that there is no more fruitful negotiations," Schumer said on the call. "The only way we can avoid a shutdown is for Boehner to come up with a reasonable compromise and not just listen to what the Tea Party wants. "
Schumer described Boehner as "in a box," over the budget negotiations.
The four senators came on the call after Schumer abruptly went silent and followed Schumer's script closely.
Coordinating the message is common in both parties, but it's uncommon for reporters to actually hear them rehearsing.
Budget Talks Sour, Dems Blame Tea Party for Stalemate as Deadline Looms
The Capitol Hill rhetoric reached new levels of ugliness Tuesday as negotiations over some semblance of a federal budget gave way to finger-pointing, with Democrats blaming Tea Party freshmen for a potential government shutdown and Republicans calling those claims a fantasy.
Over the past few days, Democrats have pounded the argument that Congress would have been able to work out a budget deal long ago if not for the extreme demands of Tea Party-aligned lawmakers.
Congress has until April 8, the expiration date for the current short-term budget, to craft either another stopgap or a more substantive budget that lasts through the end of fiscal 2011, or face a partial Washington shutdown.
Hopes were relatively high last week that such a coming-together could happen, but lawmakers on both sides made clear Tuesday they've made scant progress.
"Unfortunately, there are a number of new people in the Congress who think that a compromise is a sellout," House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday. He said there's still room for compromise, but accused the "perfectionist caucus" -- his latest term for the Tea Partiers -- of dragging down the Republican leadership. Hoyer said he put the odds of a shutdown at "five or six" on a scale of 10.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also took to the floor Tuesday to accuse the Tea Party of scuttling negotiations over a spending package.
Republicans fired back, preemptively pinning blame on the Democrats for a possible government shutdown while singling out Hoyer and Schumer for their comments Tuesday.
"Senator Schumer is not part of the (budget) negotiations, and he is making up fairy tales trying to derail serious discussions on funding the government and cutting spending, because he believes his party would benefit from a government shutdown," said Mike Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"At this point, the House has passed a bill to fund the government through the end of the year while cutting spending. The Senate has not -- and Senator Schumer's inaccurate rants won't change that," Steel said.
The Tea Party also hit back at Schumer.
"While Chuck Schumer and the Democratic caucus have been busy in a backroom crafting their 'blame the Tea Party' talking points, according to Rasmussen, 69 percent of Americans remain 'angry' or 'very angry' with the government," said Mark Meckler, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots.
"Why? It's not that complicated, and it's definitely not because the American public thinks the government isn't spending enough money," he added. "It's because the majority of the American voters sent a clear message to Washington D.C. in November to get their fiscal house in order, and to make the cuts that will put this country on a sustainable path. Clearly people like Chuck Schumer didn't listen."
House Republicans weeks ago called for $61 billion in cuts from last year's spending levels, a target announced after Tea Party-aligned lawmakers complained an earlier proposal did not go far enough. Since then, Congress passed two stopgap bills which together cut $10 billion. White House budget officials have since indicated they'd be willing to put another $20 billion-$25 billion on the table, bringing total cuts to as much as $35 billion -- incidentally, the target originally cited by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., before House Republican leaders pulled back and called for $61 billion in cuts.
One senior Senate GOP aide said Republicans should, at this point, "take that number and run," and then resolve to cut more in the fiscal 2012 budget.
But as talks continue, mainly between the White House and House Republicans, lawmakers say there's no deal.
"There is not an agreement on a number," Boehner told reporters.
"Make no mistake, if the government ends up shutting down, it will be because Senate Democrats refused to offer a real proposal that cuts spending and because the White House flatly refused to lead," House Republican Leader Eric Cantor's office said in a memo Tuesday.
As talks sour, both sides claim they can't be held accountable since neither has a complete majority in Washington.
"It's self-evident we don't control Washington, or we wouldn't be having this problem," Hoyer said, arguing that Democrats would not be to blame if the government shuts down.