Senate Republicans Preview Budget Conference

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 24: Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) questions Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) during his confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of State in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 24, 2013 in Washington, DC. Nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, Kerry has served on this committee for 28 years and has been chairman for four of those years.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Oct. 28, 2013, 5:31 p.m.

Sen. Ron John­son of Wis­con­sin just got off the phone with House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an on Monday when he offered a pre­view of his open­er at the budget con­fer­ence later this week.

In short: Ex­pect a wonky hear­ing, with dashes of polit­ic­al pos­tur­ing. It’s not that John­son thinks there should be dem­agoguery — it’s just pretty likely.

“When you start talk­ing num­bers and start throw­ing out charts and graphs, people’s eyes glaze over,” said John­son, one of the Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an ap­pointees to the com­mit­tee. “You’re talk­ing about a fin­an­cial prob­lem here. It deals with num­bers. So I don’t know a way to deal with a fin­an­cial prob­lem without deal­ing with the un­der­ly­ing truth, the facts, the num­bers.”

With Con­gress’s re­cent track re­cord of wait­ing un­til the last minute — or bey­ond it — to ham­mer out an agree­ment that can win sup­port in both cham­bers and the White House, John­son and Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans are re­veal­ing few de­tails about what they are will­ing to trade.

While they want to take the spend­ing caps man­dated in the Budget Con­trol Act off the table, they are open to mak­ing changes with­in those caps.

“I think there is a pos­sib­il­ity where we repri­or­it­ize spend­ing with­in those se­quester caps of over­all spend­ing to maybe re­plen­ish some ac­counts,” John­son said. “From my stand­point, I’m con­cerned about de­fense. I think most Re­pub­lic­ans are. I know Demo­crats have dif­fer­ent pri­or­it­ies. There might be some horse-trad­ing that oc­curs there.”

Re­pub­lic­ans are try­ing to wall off cer­tain areas ahead of the con­fer­ence. Tax in­creases are off the table; rolling back the spend­ing caps is a non­starter; and they want re­forms to en­ti­tle­ment spend­ing.

Moreover, Re­pub­lic­ans who, like John­son, op­posed the de­fund-Obama­care tac­tics used dur­ing the shut­down, will likely try to turn that in­to a rhet­or­ic­al op­por­tun­ity this time around. The fo­cus is on seem­ing reas­on­able.

“I did not sup­port the de­fund strategy. I knew it was un­real­ist­ic — just as un­real­ist­ic as it is for the pres­id­ent and Demo­crats to de­mand that the House is gonna pass a tax in­crease,” John­son said. “If [Sen­ate Demo­crats] “¦ in­sist on a tril­lion dol­lars in tax in­creases, it’s go­ing nowhere.”

Re­pub­lic­ans have been plan­ning to rally around the spend­ing cuts in the Budget Con­trol Act since the start of this Con­gress, and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell called out the caps as a sig­na­ture achieve­ment when he an­nounced the deal he made with Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id to re­open the gov­ern­ment.

“What the BCA showed is that Wash­ing­ton can cut spend­ing,” Mc­Con­nell said. “And we’re not go­ing back on this agree­ment.”

In­deed, oth­er Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans have tempered their fore­casts for the con­fer­ence, know­ing the di­vide between the Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic and House Re­pub­lic­an budgets.

“Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats have ser­i­ous philo­soph­ic­al dis­agree­ments over the prop­er role of gov­ern­ment,” Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, R-Ala., said in a state­ment. “But good-faith ef­forts can surely make im­prove­ments, and per­haps even make very sig­ni­fic­ant im­prove­ments in the long-term fin­an­cial situ­ation of our coun­try.”

Of course, Sen­ate Demo­crats have taken some meas­ures off the table as well. A Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide said that Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., and Re­id will not sup­port whole­sale changes to So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care. Last week, Re­id called trad­ing se­quest­ra­tion re­lief for So­cial Se­cur­ity re­forms “stu­pid,” in an in­ter­view with the Huff­ing­ton Post.

Still, John­son said that in meet­ings with law­makers, Obama has ac­know­ledged the po­ten­tial in­solv­ency fa­cing en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams like Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity, even go­ing so far as to tell Re­pub­lic­ans that he real­izes Amer­ic­ans will be get­ting about $3 in Medi­care be­ne­fits for every dol­lar that is paid in­to the sys­tem.

To John­son, that sug­ges­ted Obama might sup­port re­forms to Medi­care, des­pite Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic state­ments to the con­trary. Be­hind closed doors, John­son told the pres­id­ent that it would be im­possible for a Re­pub­lic­an in the White House to re­form the so­cial safety net be­cause Demo­crats in Con­gress would pil­lory him. Obama, then, would have a chance to do something his­tor­ic, John­son told him.

The pres­id­ent, John­son said, just listened and didn’t dis­pute or agree with the as­ser­tion.

“I was the only guy that asked a ques­tion and made a com­ment where Pres­id­ent Obama didn’t have a five-minute re­sponse,” he said. “Now does that speak volumes? I don’t know. We’ll find out.”

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