Just one day after the Senate failed to pass any gun-control measures, the prospect of a spring budget deal seemed equally elusive.
There is no formal budget conference on the horizon between House Republicans and Senate Democrats to reconcile the two parties’ wildly different visions and blueprints for spending and taxes. This is after weeks of both parties promoting the benefits of “regular order,” during which Congress conducts its business through committees instead of looking to leadership to cut deals.
The other path to a budget compromise—the White House’s charm offensive and its private dinners and lunches with lawmakers—seems similarly stalled.
On Wednesday evening, the president’s dinner with 12 Democratic senators at the Jefferson Hotel did not produce any timetable or new plan to avert a massive fight this summer over raising the debt ceiling, according to one attendee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
“The president reiterated the fact that he will not negotiate when it comes to a possible default of our country’s finances,” she said.
The two routes to a budget deal—regular order or schmoozing—do not seem to be working, despite Washington’s two-year deep dive into fiscal issues. The White House had hoped that it could cut a budget deal through the Senate by wooing a handful of Republican senators, passing legislation through that chamber, and then forcing the House Republicans to act—a script similar to the fiscal-cliff deal.
Yet that plan seems less likely now after the failure of gun control, in which Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a fiscal conservative and former super committee member, put forth the legislation. It failed to garner enough support to clear the Senate, or convert a huge number of Republicans, and in that is a lesson for the administration's charm offensive. It shows the difficulty of leaning on individual Republican senators to close a bipartisan deal, one Democratic aide said.
At this point, who else is left to pick up the pieces of a budget compromise, or negotiate with the White House on the debt ceiling, the undoing of the sequester, or a small-scale budget package?
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has all but dropped out of the fiscal fights to focus on his 2014 reelection campaign. He and Vice President Joe Biden closed deals on the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, and the 2010 extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.
House Speaker John Boehner and the White House deeply distrust one another after their series of failed negotiations. Other Republican senators, who appear willing to work across the aisle, instead seem focused on immigration reform.
Even among themselves, the Democrats cannot agree on the best way to reduce the deficit. The president’s budget included savings and new revenue from “chained CPI.” This would switch the measure of inflation that the government uses to calculate government benefits, including Social Security.
Democratic leaders such Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a close White House ally, remain skeptical. “I have big concerns about chained CPI, as to whether it is an accurate and appropriate measure of inflation for seniors,” Van Hollen said Thursday. “Elderly individuals consume a higher percentage of their income on health care, which has a higher rate of cost increase.”
This leaves very little room to eke out a budget deal before this summer. “All of the optics and sparring is really about how to find a path to the two areas we know we have to deal with—the entitlements and tax reform,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., another attendee at the president’s Wednesday dinner.
Despite the low prospects of a budget deal, professional Washington does not seem ready to surrender. The deficit-reduction duo of Simpson and Bowles plan to release new details of their $2.4 trillion deficit-reduction plan on Friday.
“The outside groups are positive. Each one will make a suggestion and with their own analysis, put it forward,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., another dinner attendee.
But as for any budget deal, Durbin seemed unsure. “There is no indication from the other side that they want to actively engage in that,” he said. “But hope springs eternal.”
This article appears in the April 19, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.