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Budget Conference Starts With Optimistic Words, Usual Split on Taxes

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
The budget conference committee met Wednesday, when Murray handed off the gavel to Ryan.

Gathering Wednesday morning for their first formal meeting, the leaders of the House and Senate Budget committees continued the recent pattern of setting low hurdles and reasonable expectations — while still being split as usual on the issue of taxes.

The meeting in the bowels of the Capitol in a room best known lately as the site of contentious House GOP conference meetings, kicked off with Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., handing off an unusually large gavel to her House counterpart, Republican Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. That’s because, as a matter of tradition, the two chambers alternate chairing conference committees.

“Nobody has to abandon their principles. Instead, we need to find out where our principles overlap. We all agree Washington isn’t working. We all agree there’s a smarter way to cut spending. And we all agree our economy could be doing a lot better. We won’t resolve all our differences here,” Ryan said in his opening statement. “We won’t solve all our problems. But we can make a good start. And we should, because we owe it to the country.”

“I hope that we might be able to exceed expectations,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., noting that he thought members on both sides had done a good job of narrowing the goals. He stopped short of suggesting a “grand bargain,” however.

Murray focused on what many lawmakers view as the first task of the conference — finding replacement savings for the sequester.

“I agree with those who say the very least this conference should be able to do — the absolute minimum — is find a way to come together around replacing sequestration and setting a budget level for at least the short-term,” Murray 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. So let’s start with something we do agree on. Democrats and Republicans have said replacing sequestration should be a priority for this budget conference.”

Democrats and Republicans differed on the issue of taxes, as was to be expected. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., noted the nearly $1 trillion in new revenues over a decade in the Senate Democratic framework, while a number of Democrats from both chambers highlighted efforts to close what they term as loopholes in the tax code.

“In concrete terms, the difference between the House and Senate budgets is about $90 billion. Believe it or not, that’s just about what published reports say the Treasury loses every year, alone, from these offshore tax havens,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said. “Just these few examples could save more than enough to resolve the differences in the House and Senate budget plans, at least in the first year.”

Most of the real work won’t be done in public conference meetings, which is a good thing since the panel will not reconvene until Nov. 13, Ryan announced Wednesday morning. That’s because the House and Senate are once again operating on different schedules, with the House expected to take a recess next week.

“I hope we will hold a number of open sessions to discuss proposals in considerable detail so that we really understand how they would affect ordinary people and American prosperity,” said House Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y.

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