Feb. 8, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Biggest Part of Budget Deal May Be Having One at All

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Everyone in the House other than Ryan is being kept largely on the sidelines of budget discussions, from party leaders to appointed conferees.

Despite murmurs that a deal could be announced as soon as Tuesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen — the Maryland Democrat who is a budget conferee and ranking member on the House Budget Committee — on Monday was still saying he thought the chances for reaching an agreement were “50-50.”

In an interview on MSNBC, Van Hollen said it was “absolutely” a deal breaker for him should the budget deal, as rumored, find savings in requiring federal workers to contribute a greater amount into their retirement. Van Hollen seems to be trying to maximize the limited leverage that House Democrats have overall, since any deal that Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., would strike with Ryan would have to have broad backing of Senate Democrats.

Though a Ryan-Murray deal would fall short of the grand, multiyear budget blueprint for which lawmakers in both chambers had been clamoring, the outcome is expected to give Congress better tools to fulfill one of the body’s chief responsibilities: passing spending bills.

The big test, then, would be the drafting of an appropriations package. Of the 12 regular spending bills, those dealing with defense and security needs are usually easy to informally conference between the chambers, but the bills that focus on domestic spending regularly get stuck over partisan policy battles.

“That one might be a little more difficult,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said of his bill. “What we would probably do is get everybody to convene and take a look at it.

“The other 11 might be a little bit easier,” Kingston added.

Still, House Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey, who also happens to be a budget conferee, said last week that she thought appropriators would largely complete their work.

While preventing a government shutdown would be an accomplishment in its own right, the budget talks would portend somewhere from $30 billion to $40 billion in relief from sequester cuts for the current budget year alone, since the post-sequester limit in current law is $967 billion.

That’s small potatoes relative to the multitrillion-dollar grand-bargain deals. And it’s only about twice the cost of blocking a scheduled cut in the payments doctors get for treating Medicare patients for another year.

Providing the “doc fix” is something of an annual ritual in the Capitol that will play out again, with a stopgap bill of three months likely to come up in the House before that chamber leaves for the Christmas holiday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., mentioned the Medicare payment issue in opening the Senate on Monday afternoon, reprising a familiar argument about using budgetary savings associated with the wind downs of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to pay for the patch.

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