Washington (AP) - Democrats indicated Tuesday they may be willing to accept Republican-backed curbs on the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal regulators as part of an overall deal on spending cuts, a rare hint of compromise in private negotiations marked by public rancor.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House, although administration officials are working closely with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the secretive three-way talks that include House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Any concession by Democrats on non-spending items would mark an attempt to persuade Republicans to accept smaller budget cuts than the $61 billion contained in legislation that passed the House last month.
The talks are aimed at finding agreement on a bill to meet the Republicans' demand for spending cuts while funding the government through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.
A short-term spending measure expires on April 8. A partial government shutdown looms without further action by Congress by then. Even so, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters during the day "time is up" and there will be no more stopgap measures without the larger agreement Republicans seek.
The talks have taken place entirely out of public view, but in recent days Democrats have accused Republicans of stepping back from the framework of a possible deal, and lawmakers in both parties have said the prospects of avoiding a government shutdown were dimming.
This maneuvering took an unusual turn during the day when Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., could be heard advising fellow Democratic senators what to say in a conference call with reporters.
"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," he said.
"I always use the word extreme. That's what the caucus instructed me to do the other week, extreme cuts and all these riders."
The term "riders" refers to the non-spending provisions Republicans included in the bill, some of which Democrats now signal that may accept.
At a news conference in the Capitol, Reid pointedly did not rule out the provisions that Republicans included in a $61 billion package of spending cuts.
"We're happy to look at the policy riders. There aren't many of them that excite me. But we're willing to look at them. In fact, we've already started looking at some," he said.
Reid also said Democrats had prepared another offer for Republicans that would bring total spending cuts to $30 billion, including $10 billion that Congress has already approved.
Asked whether that represented his last offer, he replied: "I'm not in the last-offer business. I've been around here too long to do that."
Like Schumer, Reid challenged Boehner. "Republicans need to decide which is worse: angering their tea party base, or shutting down the government and threatening our fragile economy even more," he said.
While Reid did not specify which non-spending items might be acceptable, other officials stressed that opposition remains strong to GOP attempts to defund or otherwise hamper implementation of the year-old health care law. Nor are Democrats willing to accept cutting off federal funds for Planned Parenthood.
"It's too extreme," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "I don't see it happening."
Additionally, Schumer said that a proposal to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases was a non-starter for Democrats. "We believe that they don't belong in a budget bill," he said referring to the proposals relating to Planned Parenthood and greenhouse gases.
Under the House-passed measure, in addition to the greenhouse gas regulation, the EPA would also be blocked from issuing or enforcing new regulations on the emission of mercury from cement factories, pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, surface coal mining and runoff into Florida waters.
Other elements of the House-passed bill would stop the administration from issuing new regulations on for-profit private schools and block the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing rules on the Internet that are opposed by Verizon and other Internet service providers.
These provisions drew support from Democrats when they cleared the House.
The Senate has not yet voted on any proposed restrictions on the EPA, but may do so Wednesday as part of a bill unrelated to the budget. Democrats appear divided, with some likely to back proposals to block the agency from regulating greenhouse gases.
Late Tuesday, Senate Democrats were mulling compromise language proposed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. It would bar EPA enforcement of greenhouse gas regulations for two years; create a single national standard for motor vehicle emissions; and exempt agriculture from greenhouse gas regulations.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Charles Babington contributed to this report.