With just 10 days before the budget conference committee must report its recommendations to Congress, signs of movement in the ongoing negotiations are appearing in the halls of the Capitol.
Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., the cochair of the conference committee, returned to Washington Tuesday even with the Senate still in recess, an indication that the talks are ramping up ahead of the committee’s Dec. 13 deadline.
Murray is frequently reaching out to other Democratic conferees. She spoke with House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., on Monday night and planned to speak with him again Tuesday night or Wednesday, Van Hollen said.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., another conferee, said Tuesday morning that the budget negotiators were getting “close” to a deal that will cover the remainder of fiscal year 2014 and potentially fiscal year 2015 as well. “I think they’re down to the last few items.… They’ve narrowed the gap fairly substantially since they started this, and they’re to be commended for that,” Cole said.
But Van Hollen poured cold water on warm depictions of the negotiations coming from some of his Republican colleagues Tuesday, noting that there is still no deal on the table.
“Right now, the negotiations work by subtraction—in other words, people are taking things off the table. So, if you define success by narrowing the discussion, I guess that’s progress,” Van Hollen said Tuesday. “But you still have to resolve the narrow issues and that’s not resolved. The big issue on the sequester is coming to some agreement on the offsets. And there’s been no agreement on the offsets.”
There is clearly movement, and members on both sides say that’s positive in itself. However, the specific content of the discussions continues to be a closely held secret.
Van Hollen and Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the vice chairman of the House Budget Committee, walked into the House chamber together on Tuesday and stood in the back of the Democratic section, discussing a potential budget agreement for several minutes, Van Hollen confirmed. But he laughed when pressed for information about what was said.
Price said that he’s “very” confident the committee will strike a deal, but would not offer details on how or when it would happen.
As speculation about a possible deal has ramped up in recent days, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has once again taken to wearing his headphones around the Capitol, telling shouting reporters—with a smile—that he’s unable to hear them.
“I got nothing to say to you guys. But have a nice day, all right?” Ryan told a pack of reporters Tuesday morning after he emerged from a meeting with House GOP leaders.
Among the signs of movement on a deal: Negotiators have begun focusing on how to package a potential agreement legislatively in a way that can avoid any last-second roadblocks to passage.
Under the current strategy being discussed, if the 29 conferees agree on a path forward—and a majority of representatives on the panel from both parties would have to approve it—Congress could pass a budget “blueprint” in the form of a “conference report.” That agreement does not have to be signed by the president, but it will be pitched as Congress having reached a deal to avoid another government shutdown on Jan. 15.
But that isn’t the whole story. Over the Christmas break, appropriators from both chambers will devise their spending bills—either as separate measures or a larger, omnibus bill—for anticipated passage when Congress reconvenes in early January. That would also be the vehicle for undoing the next round of sequester cuts.
It is likely that a second bill will also be devised laying out new fees or fee hikes to replace the sequester spending reductions. The concern is that some lawmakers who approved of the budget “blueprint” may not support separate legislation increasing fees, particularly those that hit certain favored constituencies, leaving appropriators without the funds to carry out the larger budget agreement.
Democrats hope that House Republican leaders do not want to see anxiety build in the coming weeks over the potential for another government shutdown, which also might detract from the momentum of their attacks on the administration over the launch of the health care law.
Despite the talk of a potential agreement, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on Tuesday expressed skepticism, asserting that Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House Republicans have an established pattern of walking away from deals.
“Their energy towards getting a budget deal seems to be [at a] minimum. I hope that’s not the case. I hope we move forward on it,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer pointed to a potential short-term continuing resolution, currently under discussion among House Republicans if the budget negotiators fail to reach a deal. Few details have emerged as to how long the CR would last, and Cole said Tuesday that Boehner has not made a final decision on whether he will pursue a CR at all. But Cole warned that many in his caucus will not be comfortable heading home for the holidays without one.
“I think there’s a pretty strong sentiment in our conference that we don’t want there to be a lot of discussion over the holidays about a potential government shutdown,” he said.
Democrats are characterizing a CR vote in December as a “symbol of defeat,” in Van Hollen’s words. Both he and Hoyer said Tuesday that they would oppose a continuing resolution, arguing that it would lock in sequestration cuts.