In Budget Negotiations, Where Are the Senate Deal-Makers?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) speaks to reporters before going into the Senate Chamber to vote, on October 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. The shut down is currently in it's 12th day.  
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Oct. 29, 2013, 5:19 p.m.

It’s be­come al­most a theme this Con­gress. Sen­ate con­cili­at­ors broker deals or craft some le­gis­lat­ive solu­tion — of­ten at the very last minute — to avoid a crisis.

Sens. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona and Chuck Schu­mer of New York en­gin­eered a deal to avert the so-called nuc­le­ar op­tion; Schu­mer and Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der of Ten­ness­ee helped get Sen­ate lead­ers talk­ing be­fore the deal was struck to re­open gov­ern­ment and avoid de­fault; and the group known as the Gang of Eight au­thored the bi­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion bill this year.

But the budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee, which of­fi­cially starts work Wed­nes­day, is largely lack­ing these deal-makers.

In­stead, lead­ers on both sides of the aisle de­cided to tap the en­tire Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee for the high-pro­file task of craft­ing a spend­ing plan for fisc­al 2014, with re­com­mend­a­tions due in mid-Decem­ber. The reas­on, mem­bers of both parties say, is ob­vi­ous enough: The com­mit­tee mem­bers have the most ex­pert­ise on budget mat­ters.

“The Demo­crat­ic mem­bers of my com­mit­tee have really worked on this is­sue from the very be­gin­ning of the year. They know the is­sues,” said Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash. “They know what the val­ues are and have in­ves­ted a lot in get­ting to a res­ol­u­tion. They’ll be great play­ers in this.”

Of the 22 sen­at­ors — there are only sev­en House mem­bers on the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee — a few have brokered deals this Con­gress, in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­an Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina, a mem­ber of the Gang of Eight that shep­her­ded im­mig­ra­tion through the up­per cham­ber, and in­de­pend­ent An­gus King of Maine, who helped seal the deal on stu­dent-loan rates with Al­ex­an­der and oth­ers.

Noth­ing, however, pre­cludes the sen­at­ors on the com­mit­tee from cut­ting a deal this time — and noth­ing stops those not on the com­mit­tee from car­ry­ing on ne­go­ti­ations sep­ar­ate from the of­fi­cial budget con­fer­ence, aides say.

“I hope Plan A works, but hope­fully there’s also oth­er dis­cus­sion in the event there isn’t a budget con­fer­ence that yields a con­clu­sion,” said Sen. Bob Cork­er, R-Tenn., who him­self helped broker a bor­der-se­cur­ity meas­ure that eased pas­sage of the im­mig­ra­tion bill this year.

Already, sen­at­ors are scal­ing back ex­pect­a­tions for what a pos­sible deal will look like. Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans re­cog­nize that they’ve been in sim­il­ar po­s­i­tions be­fore and that the so-called grand bar­gain has eluded them each time.

“I’m guarded over the whole pro­cess,” said Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Richard Shelby, R-Ala. Sen. Mark Pry­or, an Arkan­sas Demo­crat, ad­ded: “I nev­er thought a grand bar­gain was real­ist­ic at this time — you just don’t have the time. I mean look, if you want to try it, that’s great. More power to them.”

Asked wheth­er the mem­bers on the pan­el could broker the kind of deal that aver­ted crises be­fore, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., shook his head and chuckled.

As he put it, “Listen, if we don’t we’re all in trouble.”

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