Three’s a Crowd at These House-Senate Negotiating Tables

Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:10pm

Dozens of member of Congress and hundreds of their aides have never come close to experiencing a formal, or even informal, legislative conference committee. Divided government and intense partisanship have made a real rarity out of actual dealmaking between the House and Senate. But this week promises to see three sets of negotiations getting started — on the budget, the farm bill and perhaps the water projects package.

Collections of senators and House members meeting face to face to compromise companion versions of similar bills is supposed to be an essential part of regular order. Instead, it looks to be the several-week exception to the unspoken current rules at the Capitol, which are that one chamber or the other comes up with legislation that the other side sooner or later decides to accept as is.

The most potentially consequential work will be done by the 29 lawmakers tasked with writing a budget blueprint for the rest of the fiscal year. Their first meeting is Wednesday, a photo op and opening-statements session that nonetheless marks the start of the first budget conference in four years.

Both sides are insisting for now that it’s time to tamp down expectations, describing a “grand bargain” as out of reach. They do so even while using back channels to discuss options for a comprehensive package of sequester easing, entitlement curbs and, maybe, some raised revenue through loophole closures.

They are mindful not to repeat the raised public expectations that weighed down the supercommittee, which never came all that close to a deal two years ago because of a standoff over whether taxes should be part of the formula. But they are also heartened that President Barack Obama has signaled he won’t make tax increases a precondition for endorsing some measures that would slow the growth in Medicare or other mandatory programs.

The main target of the talks is a compromise that prevents the second round of deep, across-the-board spending cuts from taking effect in the second half of January. The way to meet somewhere in the middle is relatively obvious: Both sides would embrace a freeze in spending at the current annualized rate of $986 billion, which is $20 billion more than what House Republicans formally favor (it’s the sequester level for next year) but $72 billion less than the official bargaining position of the Senate Democrats.

GOP negotiators will insist that money to offset the additional spending come from restraints on entitlements, such as more Medicare means testing or holding down cost-of-living boosts for Social Security.

Democrats will push initially for some tax hikes but will also claim that some savings should come from trimming the Pentagon’s account for “overseas contingency operations.” That’s Defense Department lingo for the continued costs in Afghanistan and Iraq.