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
Billy House Stacy Kaper Elahe Izadi
Billy House Stacy Kaper Elahe Izadi
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.”

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