Budget Conference: A Committee of Two?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17: Members of the bipartisan budget conference (L-R) Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) discuss their initial meeting at the U.S. Capitol October 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. Congress voted last night to fund the federal budget and increase the nation's debt limit, ending a 16-day government shutdown.
National Journal
Elahe Izad Stacy Kaper Billy House
Oct. 30, 2013, 3:50 p.m.

It’s sup­posed to be a com­mit­tee of 29 sep­ar­ate voices from the House and Sen­ate. But the early sig­nals from the in­aug­ur­al meet­ing of the bi­par­tis­an House and Sen­ate budget con­fer­ence are that it may op­er­ate more like a com­mit­tee of two: Rep. Paul Ry­an and Sen. Patty Mur­ray.

Ry­an said Wed­nes­day that the com­mit­tee won’t be form­ally sit­ting down as a group again un­til Nov. 13 — a fact that seemed to catch even some of the pan­el’s mem­bers by sur­prise. That leaves barely a month be­fore the pan­el’s Dec. 13 dead­line to re­port its re­com­mend­a­tions back to Con­gress.

“That is a huge con­cern to me,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. “The Amer­ic­an people ex­pect us to be get­ting in­to the nitty-gritty, not just giv­ing open­ing state­ments and check­ing out for two weeks.”

Ry­an said the lack of form­al com­mit­tee meet­ings be­fore mid-Novem­ber was be­cause House and Sen­ate sched­ules don’t over­lap un­til then.

But sev­er­al mem­bers of the com­mit­tee, charged with keep­ing the gov­ern­ment fun­ded past Jan. 15 and avoid­ing an­oth­er shut­down, said the weeks between now and Thanks­giv­ing are cru­cial to get­ting work done. Fin­ish­ing be­fore Thanks­giv­ing could al­low more time for the House and Sen­ate to reach agree­ment, and give ap­pro­pri­at­ors time to craft in­di­vidu­al spend­ing bills or a lar­ger om­ni­bus pack­age.

“When you look at the hour­glass “¦ the time between now and Thanks­giv­ing is cru­cial,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Not that all com­mit­tee mem­bers didn’t get a chance to ex­press them­selves in open­ing state­ments Wed­nes­day. One after the oth­er, they spoke be­fore the cam­er­as, though the meet­ing was largely over­shad­owed by testi­mony tak­ing place else­where over Obama­care. Their state­ments were marked by words like “to­geth­er” and “com­prom­ise” and “agree.”

Yet the two cham­bers are still sharply di­vided on the is­sues, such as new tax rev­en­ues and changes to en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams like Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity.

The no­tion of a “grand bar­gain” that could tackle changes to en­ti­tle­ments, over­haul the tax code, and cut tril­lions from the na­tion­al debt is be­ing down­played as highly un­likely, something both Ry­an and Mur­ray in­dic­ated in their open­ing state­ments and be­fore.

In­stead, the fo­cus is on find­ing some way to soften the next round of se­quester cuts and for­ging a spend­ing plan through Sept. 30, 2014 (the rest of the cur­rent fisc­al year) that would go bey­ond simply ex­tend­ing ex­ist­ing fund­ing levels.

“Nobody has to aban­don their prin­ciples,” said Ry­an, the House Budget Com­mit­tee chair­man. “In­stead, we need to find out where our prin­ciples over­lap. We won’t solve all our prob­lems “¦ so let’s fo­cus on achiev­able goals. Let’s find com­mon ground.”

Mur­ray, the Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee chair, said, “This won’t be easy — the House and Sen­ate budgets are very dif­fer­ent even for just this year. But if both sides are will­ing to move out of their par­tis­an corners and of­fer up some com­prom­ises, I am con­fid­ent it can be done.”

Mur­ray said the com­mit­tee will be work­ing between now and the next con­fer­ence meet­ing. “Ob­vi­ously we all need to get it done fairly quickly. The time is very short,” she said.

But with no plans now to meet again un­til Nov. 13 — and pres­sure to de­liv­er pro­gress by Thanks­giv­ing — it ap­pears evid­ent that not all 29 mem­bers of the com­mit­tee will be in­stru­ment­al in the real ne­go­ti­ations.

Budget ex­perts, in­clud­ing Steve Pruitt, a former House Budget Com­mit­tee Demo­crat­ic staff dir­ect­or, say most of the work of House and Sen­ate con­fer­ences—es­pe­cially a budget con­fer­ence—typ­ic­ally gets done in private dis­cus­sions between the House and Sen­ate chairs, the rank­ing mem­bers, and at the staff level.

“That’s where the pro­gress will be — in the private con­ver­sa­tions,” said Sen. Bill Nel­son, D-Fla. “You’ll have some para­met­ers by then. Then you’ve got an­oth­er month to fi­nal­ize it. “

Merkley ac­know­ledged that budget lead­ers are pre­par­ing for con­ver­sa­tions be­hind the scenes but ar­gued that provides lim­ited op­por­tun­ity to work to­geth­er. “I’m sure that is cer­tainly part of it,” he said. “But maybe hav­ing reg­u­lar pub­lic gath­er­ings would also help drive more speed be­hind the scenes.”

Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, R-Iowa, told his col­leagues in a state­ment, “The de­lib­er­a­tions and deal-mak­ing shouldn’t be done in the dead of night in a back­room with only a small hand­ful of in­di­vidu­als.”

Grass­ley said some of the pub­lic cyn­icism re­gard­ing Wash­ing­ton “comes from the fact that many of the re­cent budget deals have been con­cocted in a back of­fice by a few lead­ers, and rank and file mem­bers were left to take it or leave it. They wer­en’t de­bated. There was no de­lib­er­a­tion. And nearly no one had an op­por­tun­ity be­fore­hand to even read them.”

Whatever emerges will re­quire the ap­prov­al of ma­jor­ity of the com­mit­tee’s mem­bers be­fore it can be sent as a re­com­mend­a­tion to the full House and Sen­ate.

Mean­while, Wed­nes­day’s open­ing hear­ing did little to re­set what have been re­l­at­ively low ex­pect­a­tions be­fore the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee ever gaveled in. Ry­an has said he is not seek­ing a grand bar­gain, and Demo­crats have fur­ther lowered the bar for suc­cess in re­cent days by mak­ing clear they are fo­cused on try­ing to find a budget agree­ment for fisc­al 2014 — not one that ex­tends for 10 years — and find­ing an al­tern­at­ive to the se­quester cuts.

Some con­fer­ence mem­bers said they would con­sider even small achieve­ments ma­jor vic­tor­ies in the cur­rent en­vir­on­ment.

“Let’s get some of our more im­me­di­ate is­sues re­solved,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. “Let’s lay some found­a­tion and some pro­gress for mov­ing to­wards the big­ger solu­tions. I think there is a little dif­fer­ent ex­pect­a­tion this time and hope­fully it’s one where we can be suc­cess­ful.”

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
After Wikileaks Hack, DNC Staffers Stared Using ‘Snowden-Approved’ App
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The Signal app is fast becoming the new favorite among those who are obsessed with the security and untraceabilty of their messaging. Just ask the Democratic National Committee. Or Edward Snowden. As Vanity Fair reports, before news ever broke that the DNC's servers had been hacked, word went out among the organization that the word "Trump" should never be used in their emails, lest it attract hackers' attention. Not long after, all Trump-related messages, especially disparaging ones, would need to be encrypted via the Snowden-approved Signal.

Source:
WARRING FACTIONS?
Freedom Caucus Members May Bolt the RSC
3 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The Republican Study Committee may lose several members of the House Freedom Caucus next year, "potentially creating a split between two influential groups of House conservatives." The Freedom Caucus was founded at the inception of the current Congress by members who felt that the conservative RSC had gotten too cozy with leadership, "and its roughly 40 members have long clashed with the RSC over what tactics to use when pushing for conservative legislation." As many as 20 members may not join the RSC for the new Congress next year.

Source:
SOME THERAPIES ALREADY IN TRIALS
FDA Approves Emergency Zika Test
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday issued emergency authorization for a Zika diagnostics test from Swiss drugmaker Roche, skirting normal approval channels as the regulator moves to fight the disease's spread." Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that a new study in Nature identifies "about a dozen substances" that could "suppress the pathogen's replication." Some of them are already in clinical trials.

Source:
MONEY HAS BEEN PAID BACK
Medicare Advantage Plans Overcharged Government
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

According to 37 newly released audits, "some private Medicare plans overcharged the government for the majority of elderly patients they treated." A number of Medicare Advantage plans overstated "the severity of medical conditions like diabetes and depression." The money has since been paid back, though some plans are appealing the federal audits.

Source:
DESPITE CONSERVATIVE OBJECTIONS
Omnibus Spending Bill Likely Getting a Lame-Duck Vote
6 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"GOP leaders and House Democrats are already laying the groundwork for a short-term continuing resolution" on the budget this fall "that will set up a vote on a catch-all spending bill right before the holidays." As usual, however, the House Freedom Caucus may throw a wrench in Speaker Paul Ryan's gears. The conservative bloc doesn't appear willing to accept any CR that doesn't fund the government into 2017.

Source:
×