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Biggest Part of Budget Deal May Be Having One at All

As the contours of a potential two-year budget agreement have emerged in advance of a Friday deadline, those outside the talks are expressing displeasure with both sides — perhaps a sign that a deal really is close.

And any deal, although certain to fall far short of the aborted grand bargains of yore, would be remarkable in its own right, ending a year of historic dysfunction in Washington, D.C., with a road map for a return to some semblance of normalcy.

Each side would get something: Republicans can avoid another messy government shutdown in an election year while softening a new round of defense cuts, and they seem likely to declare victory on the major sticking point: no tax increases.

Democrats will get to restore some of their favored domestic spending programs while they extract at least some small amount of revenue from the GOP — albeit in categories such as spectrum sales or user fees rather than closing tax breaks for the wealthy or corporations.

While the talks began with a formal budget conference, the important part of what’s taking shape won’t be a budget resolution, per se. That’s a nonbinding document that can merely instruct other committees to move legislation. Rather, spending and benefit changes would be enshrined in law, along with language to deem discretionary spending levels for the two-year length of the agreement, including a roughly $1 trillion cap for fiscal 2014 that will allow anxious appropriators a chance to finally craft an omnibus spending bill.

The legislation would amend the 2011 Budget Control Act that put the sequester cuts into law in the first place — provided leaders can line up the votes.

An aide familiar with the talks said the need to get 60 votes to limit debate in the Senate won’t be much of a concern, but threading the needle in the House could prove quite a task.

Heritage Action for America, a conservative group influential in the House, said in a statement Monday that it was against short-term spending above sequester levels.

“Heritage Action cannot support a budget deal that would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions. While imperfect, the sequester has proven to be an effective tool in forcing Congress to reduce discretionary spending, and a gimmicky, spend-now-cut-later deal will take our nation in the wrong direction,” the group said.

Aides to House Democrats and Republicans close to, or with knowledge of, the status of budget negotiations implied what has become all too apparent: The chamber has only one representative at the table, and that’s Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. Everyone else is being kept largely on the sidelines of discussions, from party leaders to appointed conferees.

Despite murmurs that a deal could be announced as soon as Tuesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen — the Maryland Democrat who is a budget conferee and ranking member on the House Budget Committee — on Monday was still saying he thought the chances for reaching an agreement were “50-50.”

In an interview on MSNBC, Van Hollen said it was “absolutely” a deal breaker for him should the budget deal, as rumored, find savings in requiring federal workers to contribute a greater amount into their retirement. Van Hollen seems to be trying to maximize the limited leverage that House Democrats have overall, since any deal that Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., would strike with Ryan would have to have broad backing of Senate Democrats.

Though a Ryan-Murray deal would fall short of the grand, multiyear budget blueprint for which lawmakers in both chambers had been clamoring, the outcome is expected to give Congress better tools to fulfill one of the body’s chief responsibilities: passing spending bills.

The big test, then, would be the drafting of an appropriations package. Of the 12 regular spending bills, those dealing with defense and security needs are usually easy to informally conference between the chambers, but the bills that focus on domestic spending regularly get stuck over partisan policy battles.

“That one might be a little more difficult,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said of his bill. “What we would probably do is get everybody to convene and take a look at it.

“The other 11 might be a little bit easier,” Kingston added.

Still, House Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey, who also happens to be a budget conferee, said last week that she thought appropriators would largely complete their work.

While preventing a government shutdown would be an accomplishment in its own right, the budget talks would portend somewhere from $30 billion to $40 billion in relief from sequester cuts for the current budget year alone, since the post-sequester limit in current law is $967 billion.

That’s small potatoes relative to the multitrillion-dollar grand-bargain deals. And it’s only about twice the cost of blocking a scheduled cut in the payments doctors get for treating Medicare patients for another year.

Providing the “doc fix” is something of an annual ritual in the Capitol that will play out again, with a stopgap bill of three months likely to come up in the House before that chamber leaves for the Christmas holiday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., mentioned the Medicare payment issue in opening the Senate on Monday afternoon, reprising a familiar argument about using budgetary savings associated with the wind downs of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to pay for the patch.

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