Senate Republicans Preview Budget Conference

“When you start talking numbers and start throwing out charts and graphs, people’s eyes glaze over,” said  Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “When you start talking numbers and start throwing out charts and graphs, people’s eyes glaze over,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin just got off the phone with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on Monday when he offered a preview of his opener at the budget conference later this week.

In short: Expect a wonky hearing, with dashes of political posturing. It’s not that Johnson thinks there should be demagoguery—it’s just pretty likely.

“When you start talking numbers and start throwing out charts and graphs, people’s eyes glaze over,” said Johnson, one of the Senate Republican appointees to the committee. “You’re talking about a financial problem here. It deals with numbers. So I don’t know a way to deal with a financial problem without dealing with the underlying truth, the facts, the numbers.”

With Congress’s recent track record of waiting until the last minute—or beyond it—to hammer out an agreement that can win support in both chambers and the White House, Johnson and Senate Republicans are revealing few details about what they are willing to trade.

While they want to take the spending caps mandated in the Budget Control Act off the table, they are open to making changes within those caps.

“I think there is a possibility where we reprioritize spending within those sequester caps of overall spending to maybe replenish some accounts,” Johnson said. “From my standpoint, I’m concerned about defense. I think most Republicans are. I know Democrats have different priorities. There might be some horse-trading that occurs there.”

Republicans are trying to wall off certain areas ahead of the conference. Tax increases are off the table; rolling back the spending caps is a nonstarter; and they want reforms to entitlement spending.

Moreover, Republicans who, like Johnson, opposed the defund-Obamacare tactics used during the shutdown, will likely try to turn that into a rhetorical opportunity this time around. The focus is on seeming reasonable.

“I did not support the defund strategy. I knew it was unrealistic—just as unrealistic as it is for the president and Democrats to demand that the House is gonna pass a tax increase,” Johnson said. “If [Senate Democrats] … insist on a trillion dollars in tax increases, it’s going nowhere.”

Republicans have been planning to rally around the spending cuts in the Budget Control Act since the start of this Congress, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called out the caps as a signature achievement when he announced the deal he made with Majority Leader Harry Reid to reopen the government.

“What the BCA showed is that Washington can cut spending,” McConnell said. “And we’re not going back on this agreement.”

Indeed, other Senate Republicans have tempered their forecasts for the conference, knowing the divide between the Senate Democratic and House Republican budgets.

“Republicans and Democrats have serious philosophical disagreements over the proper role of government,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in a statement. “But good-faith efforts can surely make improvements, and perhaps even make very significant improvements in the long-term financial situation of our country.”

Of course, Senate Democrats have taken some measures off the table as well. A Senate Democratic leadership aide said that Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reid will not support wholesale changes to Social Security and Medicare. Last week, Reid called trading sequestration relief for Social Security reforms “stupid,” in an interview with the Huffington Post.

Still, Johnson said that in meetings with lawmakers, Obama has acknowledged the potential insolvency facing entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, even going so far as to tell Republicans that he realizes Americans will be getting about $3 in Medicare benefits for every dollar that is paid into the system.

To Johnson, that suggested Obama might support reforms to Medicare, despite Senate Democratic statements to the contrary. Behind closed doors, Johnson told the president that it would be impossible for a Republican in the White House to reform the social safety net because Democrats in Congress would pillory him. Obama, then, would have a chance to do something historic, Johnson told him.

The president, Johnson said, just listened and didn’t dispute or agree with the assertion.

“I was the only guy that asked a question and made a comment where President Obama didn’t have a five-minute response,” he said. “Now does that speak volumes? I don’t know. We’ll find out.”

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