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Budget Conference Would Be No Slam Dunk

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Ryan said he believes the House and Senate will go to conference on the budget, though many people say a deal still wouldn’t be easy.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has long said that the fiscal-cliff deal that was enacted into law just after the start of 2013 ended the revenue discussion, and much like the Democrats’ refusal to wheel and deal on Obamacare, Republicans are unlikely to budge on their position.

The sequester, which came about as part of the failure of the supercommittee to produce a product, will be another sticking point. Among many Republicans, the sense is that the automatic spending cuts could be mitigated or turned off through savings generated on the mandatory side of the federal ledger — changes to entitlement programs that may not be popular with all Democrats.

“There’s general agreement that we ought to be able to move some of the growth in mandatory spending over to relieve the sequester. The president wants to do that, Republicans would like to do it, many of the Democratic senators would like to do it. It makes a lot of sense,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said.

Without an agreement on that point, it’d be nearly impossible for budget negotiators to come up with what might be the most important piece of the puzzle: the top-line spending number for House and Senate appropriators to craft a catch-all spending bill.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., wants a package to turn off the sequester for two years.

The most promise might come from finding yet another way around the big discussion of Medicare and Social Security spending, though. The government operates a number of other programs funded outside the appropriations process, including farm programs.

“It’s possible that the budget committee ... might use some of the mandatory savings from the farm bill, which are in the neighborhood of about $20 billion, to provide some relief on the domestic discretionary side under the sequestration,” Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins said. “I would certainly welcome that.”

The Senate-passed farm bill has scored budget savings of about $23 billion over 10 years.

“It has been raised at the highest levels and is something that is ... viewed as a positive part of solving the long-term budget crisis. As a member — senior member of the Budget Committee ... I certainly am in a very strong position to raise that,” Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Tuesday.

Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley, a senior member of the Agriculture, Budget and Finance panels, wouldn’t even entertain the question of how the conference might work. “I may be a conferee, so I better just reserve judgment for now,” Grassley said.

Matt Fuller and Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.

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