AUGUSTA — Legislative leaders scrambled Wednesday evening to resume private negotiations on the state’s next two-year budget, capping a chaotic day in which talks appeared to have hit an impasse that moved the state closer to a government shutdown.

The breakdown in private talks among top lawmakers spilled into public view at separate State House news conferences in which all parties urged the others to stop negotiating through the media. Democratic leaders also charged House Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage with negotiating in bad faith and steering the state toward the precipice of its first government shutdown since 1991. House Republicans countered that Democrats had abandoned talks because they were unwilling to compromise.

At one point, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, urged legislative leaders to return to the negotiating table. The sides had appeared to be closing in on a deal Tuesday, but Thibodeau said talks fell apart. Although he would not provide specifics about what caused the impasse, Thibodeau suggested that efforts to reach a deal had been derailed by political maneuvering.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, placed the blame squarely on House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport. Backed by LePage, Fredette has led opposition to a bipartisan deal between Senate Republicans and Democratic leaders since it was ratified by the Legislature’s budget committee last weekend.

“It’s crystal clear that Rep. Fredette and the governor are working arm in arm to shut down government,” Alfond said. “The people who care are continuing to negotiate in good faith and remain at the table. Senate Democrats and Republicans and House Democrats are committed to an agreeable solution that reflects our values and helps the people of Maine.”

ACCUSATIONS, TENSIONS PERVASIVE

But in a demonstration of caucus unity – and a clear sign of the broader disunity within the State House – the vast majority of the House’s 68 Republicans gathered behind Fredette as he accused Democrats of misrepresenting Republican positions and walking away.

“My understanding is that some of the Democrats are having some problems with what is being negotiated. That’s their issue,” Fredette said. “We are at the table. We are negotiating. We have not moved the goal posts and are talking about the exact same things that we have talked about for a long time: income tax reform, welfare reform and taking care of those people on the (nursing home and disability) wait list.”

Late in the afternoon, the top lawmakers reached an agreement to make another effort at ironing out a budget compromise. Time is running short, however.

The four legislative leaders have been meeting since last week to resolve the differences, but the negotiations – held entirely behind closed doors – have been marred by fits and starts. The tenor within the State House was decidedly gloomy and tense Wednesday, one week before what lawmakers on both sides have said is the date that a budget needs to pass both chambers.

“There’s been too many press conferences … that have created distractions and just made the process that much more difficult,” Thibodeau said, noting that the window of opportunity to avoid the government shutdown was closing fast.

“Folks that work for our state have home mortgages and car payments, too,” he said. “There are people that are receiving services that desperately need those services. We have a responsibility. I’m hoping all four leaders can get together in this office very, very soon. Let’s figure out what we can do together.”

Alfond said Fredette “kept moving the goal posts” and introduced a $20 million spending initiative for the Department of Health and Human Services that deep-sixed the talks. He then said the Republican leader and the governor were continually working to disrupt negotiations.

Fredette countered that Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, had repeatedly talked about a potential government shutdown.

“We are not talking about a state government shutdown,” Fredette said. “We are talking about being at the table and negotiating a budget that we can all support.”

TAX AMENDMENT A STICKING POINT

Meanwhile, the deal among Democrats and Senate Republicans also has hit a snag. That deal included a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote by the House and Senate to raise the state’s income tax rate. The amendment, which would need final approval from voters, is supposed to run in tandem with the budget plan.

However, Thibodeau and Alfond both said the amendment was off the table. That means the original budget agreement is unlikely to get the necessary votes to override a veto by the governor or pass as an emergency measure.

The leaders had been meeting to amend the agreement to include an income tax cut paid for with other tax increases. But that proposal also has received a chilly reception from rank-and-file Democrats whose votes will be needed to pass the budget.

Democratic leaders indicated that they plan to hold initial votes – as early as Monday – on the spending bill endorsed by the budget committee last week in a 9-4 vote. Such a move may be designed to pressure Republicans to support the bill. But Fredette’s news conference was intended to show that House Republicans plan to oppose the plan, which cannot pass without some Republican support.

Thibodeau said his caucus probably wouldn’t support the budget agreement if the constitutional amendment is off the table.

A state budget must be in place by June 30 to avoid a government shutdown.

The 1991 shutdown lasted for 17 days and idled over 10,000 state workers. Many state services were not provided, highway projects stalled, and state parks and beaches were closed during the peak of the state’s tourism season.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.