Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Evan Vucci/AP

The Next Budget Crisis Is Only 90 Days Away

Lawmakers have pinned hopes to avert a repeat performance on a new bipartisan, bicameral conference committee.

Before the ink was even dry on the plan to end the government shutdown and avoid busting the nation’s debt limit, there were growing doubts that Congress could avoid another fiscal showdown in only 90 days.

The package to reopen the government runs only through mid-January, and lawmakers have pinned hopes to avert a repeat performance on a new bipartisan, bicameral conference committee. The last similar panel, the so-called super committee of 2011, deadlocked and adjourned in disagreement.

The new panel, to be led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., will begin its talks amid a poisonous and partisan atmosphere after the first government shutdown in 17 years.

If the policy gulf between the two parties was not challenging enough, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are questioning whether anyone -- even Ryan, the most respected voice on fiscal matters among House Republicans -- can truly represent a fractious conference that pushed a government shutdown against its leadership’s wishes and then rejected its own speaker’s proposal to reopen the government.

“We’re ungovernable,” Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, said Wednesday. “There is no doubt in my mind that the last three weeks have made anything achievable in the House more difficult.”

For the conference committee to succeed, both parties must trust that the other is negotiating in good faith and can sell a compromise-laced package to their respective caucuses. It’s not clear anyone currently has that ability when it comes to the restive House Republicans.

“That’s a legitimate concern based upon recent history,” said Sen. Robert Casey, a moderate Pennsylvania Democrat. “Not much we can do about that other than have them disprove it.”

Boustany agreed that the challenge will be especially acute for House GOP conferees. “Any time a conference committee convenes to try to solve some of these problems—whether it’s a farm bill, or a deficit-reduction package, or anything—if you can’t rely on the fact that the rank-and-file members have your back and will go along with it then that makes it impossible to govern,” he said. “And that’s largely where we are today, and it’s not a good place to be.”

In public on Wednesday, top lawmakers tried to sound a positive note, even as leadership aides in both parties, and on both ends of the Capitol, were skeptical.

“You have two very good negotiators who are far apart in their views, but both wish to defang the worst parts of sequestration,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “Hope springs eternal.”

Two main assumptions underpin those Democratic hopes. The first is that Republicans, wounded politically in the current shutdown bout, will not want to rehash another government-shutdown battle in only 90 days. The second is that GOP hawks will come to the table to discuss unwinding the automatic cuts in place due to sequestration because the defense sector will take a bigger share of cutbacks in 2014 than it did in 2013.

Both assumptions could prove false. Democrats have consistently overestimated the current, tea-party-infused Republican Party’s willingness to negotiate away sequestration because of defense spending. And plenty of House Republicans, even amid plummeting poll numbers, did not sound ready to give up the fight.

“The battle is over,” Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican elected in the 2010 wave, said on Wednesday, “but the war has just begun.”

Lawmakers are already busy defining down success for the budget conference committee. Almost no one is discussing the kind of “grand bargain”—a mixture of revenues sought by Democrats and entitlement cutbacks sought by Republicans—that has proved elusive between President Obama and congressional Republicans for almost three years.

House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday that “raising taxes is not a viable option,” while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi ruled out any changes to Medicare and Social Security without fresh revenues. “Why should granny pay the price when we won’t even touch one hair on the head of the wealthy in the country?” she said on MSBNC.

Instead, discussions for the conference committee are around simply keeping the government open through September 2014, the rest of the current fiscal year. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., called that a “reasonable expectation.”

“I would acknowledge that the insiders here probably have low expectations,” he said, “so let’s exceed it.”

Ben Terris contributed to this article.