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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.

As the contours of a potential two-year budget agreement have emerged in advance of a Friday deadline, those outside the talks are expressing displeasure with both sides — perhaps a sign that a deal really is close.

And any deal, although certain to fall far short of the aborted grand bargains of yore, would be remarkable in its own right, ending a year of historic dysfunction in Washington, D.C., with a road map for a return to some semblance of normalcy.

Each side would get something: Republicans can avoid another messy government shutdown in an election year while softening a new round of defense cuts, and they seem likely to declare victory on the major sticking point: no tax increases.

Democrats will get to restore some of their favored domestic spending programs while they extract at least some small amount of revenue from the GOP — albeit in categories such as spectrum sales or user fees rather than closing tax breaks for the wealthy or corporations.

While the talks began with a formal budget conference, the important part of what’s taking shape won’t be a budget resolution, per se. That’s a nonbinding document that can merely instruct other committees to move legislation. Rather, spending and benefit changes would be enshrined in law, along with language to deem discretionary spending levels for the two-year length of the agreement, including a roughly $1 trillion cap for fiscal 2014 that will allow anxious appropriators a chance to finally craft an omnibus spending bill.

The legislation would amend the 2011 Budget Control Act that put the sequester cuts into law in the first place — provided leaders can line up the votes.

An aide familiar with the talks said the need to get 60 votes to limit debate in the Senate won’t be much of a concern, but threading the needle in the House could prove quite a task.

Heritage Action for America, a conservative group influential in the House, said in a statement Monday that it was against short-term spending above sequester levels.

“Heritage Action cannot support a budget deal that would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions. While imperfect, the sequester has proven to be an effective tool in forcing Congress to reduce discretionary spending, and a gimmicky, spend-now-cut-later deal will take our nation in the wrong direction,” the group said.

Aides to House Democrats and Republicans close to, or with knowledge of, the status of budget negotiations implied what has become all too apparent: The chamber has only one representative at the table, and that’s Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. Everyone else is being kept largely on the sidelines of discussions, from party leaders to appointed conferees.

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