It's supposed to be a committee of 29 separate voices from the House and Senate. But the early signals from the inaugural meeting of the bipartisan House and Senate budget conference are that it may operate more like a committee of two: Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray.
Ryan said Wednesday that the committee won't be formally sitting down as a group again until Nov. 13—a fact that seemed to catch even some of the panel's members by surprise. That leaves barely a month before the panel's Dec. 13 deadline to report its recommendations back to Congress.
"That is a huge concern to me," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. "The American people expect us to be getting into the nitty-gritty, not just giving opening statements and checking out for two weeks."
Ryan said the lack of formal committee meetings before mid-November was because House and Senate schedules don't overlap until then.
But several members of the committee, charged with keeping the government funded past Jan. 15 and avoiding another shutdown, said the weeks between now and Thanksgiving are crucial to getting work done. Finishing before Thanksgiving could allow more time for the House and Senate to reach agreement, and give appropriators time to craft individual spending bills or a larger omnibus package.
"When you look at the hourglass … the time between now and Thanksgiving is crucial," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Not that all committee members didn't get a chance to express themselves in opening statements Wednesday. One after the other, they spoke before the cameras, though the meeting was largely overshadowed by testimony taking place elsewhere over Obamacare. Their statements were marked by words like "together" and "compromise" and "agree."
Yet the two chambers are still sharply divided on the issues, such as new tax revenues and changes to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
The notion of a "grand bargain" that could tackle changes to entitlements, overhaul the tax code, and cut trillions from the national debt is being downplayed as highly unlikely, something both Ryan and Murray indicated in their opening statements and before.
Instead, the focus is on finding some way to soften the next round of sequester cuts and forging a spending plan through Sept. 30, 2014 (the rest of the current fiscal year) that would go beyond simply extending existing funding levels.
"Nobody has to abandon their principles," said Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman. "Instead, we need to find out where our principles overlap. We won't solve all our problems … so let's focus on achievable goals. Let's find common ground."
Murray, the Senate Budget Committee chair, said, "This won't be easy—the House and Senate budgets are very different even for just this year. But if both sides are willing to move out of their partisan corners and offer up some compromises, I am confident it can be done."
Murray said the committee will be working between now and the next conference meeting. "Obviously we all need to get it done fairly quickly. The time is very short," she said.
But with no plans now to meet again until Nov. 13—and pressure to deliver progress by Thanksgiving—it appears evident that not all 29 members of the committee will be instrumental in the real negotiations.
Budget experts, including Steve Pruitt, a former House Budget Committee Democratic staff director, say most of the work of House and Senate conferences--especially a budget conference--typically gets done in private discussions between the House and Senate chairs, the ranking members, and at the staff level.
"That's where the progress will be—in the private conversations," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. "You'll have some parameters by then. Then you've got another month to finalize it. "
Merkley acknowledged that budget leaders are preparing for conversations behind the scenes but argued that provides limited opportunity to work together. "I'm sure that is certainly part of it," he said. "But maybe having regular public gatherings would also help drive more speed behind the scenes."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told his colleagues in a statement, "The deliberations and deal-making shouldn't be done in the dead of night in a backroom with only a small handful of individuals."
Grassley said some of the public cynicism regarding Washington "comes from the fact that many of the recent budget deals have been concocted in a back office by a few leaders, and rank and file members were left to take it or leave it. They weren't debated. There was no deliberation. And nearly no one had an opportunity beforehand to even read them."
Whatever emerges will require the approval of majority of the committee's members before it can be sent as a recommendation to the full House and Senate.
Meanwhile, Wednesday's opening hearing did little to reset what have been relatively low expectations before the conference committee ever gaveled in. Ryan has said he is not seeking a grand bargain, and Democrats have further lowered the bar for success in recent days by making clear they are focused on trying to find a budget agreement for fiscal 2014—not one that extends for 10 years—and finding an alternative to the sequester cuts.
Some conference members said they would consider even small achievements major victories in the current environment.
"Let's get some of our more immediate issues resolved," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. "Let's lay some foundation and some progress for moving towards the bigger solutions. I think there is a little different expectation this time and hopefully it's one where we can be successful."