Optimism Persists for Budget Deal. Is It Real?

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (L) listens to Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (R) during a Conference on the FY2014 Budget Resolution meeting November 13, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf briefed the conferees on CBO's budget and economic outlook. 
National Journal
Sarah Mimms and Billy House
Dec. 3, 2013, 4:11 p.m.

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.

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