Congressional budget negotiators on Wednesday attempted to temper expectations for a big deal, and lawmakers dug in along party lines on the issue of continuing sequestration.
The bicameral budget conference committee, put into place as a condition of reopening the government after the recent 16-day shutdown, held its first official meeting Wednesday and each of the 29 members spoke on the need to reduce the federal deficit. While Democrats and Republicans largely disagreed on how to get there, they largely agreed on one idea: think small.
“I don’t think we’re going to do a grand bargain here,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “Let’s at least do a good bargain for the American people.”
All the lawmakers agreed on the need to avoid another government shutdown by reaching a deal to fund government through September, or the remainder of fiscal 2014. The current spending bill only keeps government open through Jan. 15.
Lawmakers expressed bipartisan agreement on the general principle of ending “governing by crisis,” with Democrats frequently citing the Standard and Poor’s estimate that the shutdown cost the U.S. economy $24 billion. Despite the optimism, Republicans said Congress should prepare for the possibility of the parties not reaching an agreement by passing Portman’s End Government Shutdowns Act, which would enable a continuing resolution to automatically kick in if Congress does not pass a new spending bill.
While both sides agreed on the need to compromise, the details remained murky.
“I’m ready to make some concessions to make a deal,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate Budget Committee chairwoman and the Democrats’ lead negotiator.
She added, however, that sequestration must be replaced. Democrats throughout the opening conference meeting echoed the need to undo the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, calling them bad policy and harmful to the economy.
Republicans recognized sequestration’s damage to some extent, but continued to back the policy because of its effect on the deficit.
“It’s not ideal, it’s not the best, but without replacing it with better savings, we must keep sequestration,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., added, “A little pain now is better than a lot of pain later.”
In keeping with standard partisan rhetoric, Democrats consistently spoke of the need to raise revenues by closing loopholes in the tax system while Republicans discussed the need to make cuts to mandatory spending programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recognized this divide, but maintained the negotiators could still agree on some things.
“Let’s pledge to do this: let’s not shut the government down,” Graham said. “We’re on different political planets but we can agree on that.” Graham added that while the conference may fall short of striking a deal that overhauls the tax code and reforms entitlement spending, it should at least agree on a modest spending bill.
In that, the conference’s chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., found comfort.
“I think from both sides of the aisle we have seen sign of agreement,” Ryan said, “and that’s a great start.”
The committee will hold its next meeting in two weeks, on Nov. 13. The conference has until Dec. 13 to strike a deal and make its recommendation to the full House and Senate.