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Roll Call

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.

Whenever the dust settles on the debt and government shutdown crises, the House and Senate appear likely to embark on a new round of budget talks under the auspices of a now-rare bicameral conference committee.

“Well, we’ve always talked about going to conference. Once [House Democrats] dropped their motions to instruct, that gives us the ability to go to conference on budget. That’s something that’s going to happen irrespective of how this goes down I think,” said House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.

But reconciling the budget resolutions passed by each chamber earlier this year will be no easier than any of the previous failed efforts to get a broader “grand bargain,” including the supercommittee after the 2011 debt limit deal. Still, even Senate Democrats acknowledge that if anyone in the House Republican Conference could strike a big deal, it might be Ryan — assuming he’s willing to help muster a majority of GOP votes for the endeavor.

Ryan and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., have been trying to lay the groundwork for a deal since the beginning of the year, but so far their informal talks have not borne fruit. But they could be forced to formalize those talks if the Senate moves forward with its proposal to reopen the government, raise the debt ceiling and create a budget conference deadline of Dec. 13.

The budget framework adopted by the Senate calls for almost $1 trillion in new revenue, while the House’s Ryan budget seeks a broad overhaul of entitlement programs that has been panned by Democrats.

On those fronts, nothing has changed since the spring, one Senate Republican aide suggested.

“The question is will they insist again on more revenue and refuse to acknowledge the significant problems facing America’s entitlements as part of budget talks?” the aide asked of the Democrats.

Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, a liberal independent who caucuses with the Democrats, sits on the Budget Committee and could be among the negotiators pushing for new tax money.

“When we look at the budget, it should not only be about how you cut entitlements or how you cut programs [for] vulnerable people. It also has to include how we create millions of jobs in this country, how we raise wages for low-wage workers,” Sanders said before agreeing that Democrats and Republicans will be totally at odds on revenue.

“One out of four corporations in this country do not pay any federal income taxes,” Sanders said. “Clearly, that’s an absurdity that has to be addressed and be part of that negotiation.”

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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