In Budget Negotiations, Where Are the Senate Deal-Makers?

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., walk to talk with reporters outside of the West Wing of the White House in July. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., walk to talk with reporters outside of the West Wing of the White House in July. Susan Walsh/AP

It’s become almost a theme this Congress. Senate conciliators broker deals or craft some legislative solution -- often at the very last minute -- to avoid a crisis.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Schumer of New York engineered a deal to avert the so-called nuclear option; Schumer and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee helped get Senate leaders talking before the deal was struck to reopen government and avoid default; and the group known as the Gang of Eight authored the bipartisan immigration bill this year.

But the budget conference committee, which officially starts work Wednesday, is largely lacking these deal-makers.

Instead, leaders on both sides of the aisle decided to tap the entire Senate Budget Committee for the high-profile task of crafting a spending plan for fiscal 2014, with recommendations due in mid-December. The reason, members of both parties say, is obvious enough: The committee members have the most expertise on budget matters.

“The Democratic members of my committee have really worked on this issue from the very beginning of the year. They know the issues,” said Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. “They know what the values are and have invested a lot in getting to a resolution. They’ll be great players in this.”

Of the 22 senators -- there are only seven House members on the conference committee -- a few have brokered deals this Congress, including Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Gang of Eight that shepherded immigration through the upper chamber, and independent Angus King of Maine, who helped seal the deal on student-loan rates with Alexander and others.

Nothing, however, precludes the senators on the committee from cutting a deal this time -- and nothing stops those not on the committee from carrying on negotiations separate from the official budget conference, aides say.

“I hope Plan A works, but hopefully there’s also other discussion in the event there isn’t a budget conference that yields a conclusion,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who himself helped broker a border-security measure that eased passage of the immigration bill this year.

Already, senators are scaling back expectations for what a possible deal will look like. Democrats and Republicans recognize that they’ve been in similar positions before and that the so-called grand bargain has eluded them each time.

“I’m guarded over the whole process,” said Appropriations Committee ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala. Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, added: “I never thought a grand bargain was realistic at this time -- you just don’t have the time. I mean look, if you want to try it, that’s great. More power to them.”

Asked whether the members on the panel could broker the kind of deal that averted crises before, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., shook his head and chuckled.

As he put it, “Listen, if we don’t we’re all in trouble.”

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