WASHINGTON—The clock is ticking for a bipartisan panel of lawmakers trying to accomplish in eight weeks what Congress hasn’t in more than four years: agreement on a budget. They’ve got six weeks left to do it.
Two weeks ago, Congress struck a deal to end the government shutdown and raise the country’s borrowing limit, but the agreement also mandated bicameral, bipartisan budget talks for the first time since 2011. This week, the 29 lawmakers selected for the committee met for the first time, and it proved a quick reminder of the distance between the two parties on fiscal policy.
“Right now we’re about $90 billion apart,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told me. Cole, one of four House Republicans on the committee, said the gap exists because Senate Democrats insist on spending levels that don’t recognize the Budget Control Act of 2011, which in March triggered automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.
Republicans don’t like the sequester either, but they want to replace it with targeted cuts while ensuring the deficit reduction remains in place. Democrats want to raise new revenue. For Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the committee’s co-chair, new taxes are a non-starter.
“They’ve already got three tax increases this year,” Cole said, citing Obamacare, the payroll tax, and the fiscal cliff deal that raised income tax rates to 39.6 percent for individuals making more than $400,000 annually and couples making more than $450,000.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., another member of the conference committee, said the two sides should focus on how to conquer Washington’s spending addiction, not hitting up Americans for more income.
“I will not accept tax increases as part of any potential budget deal,” Wicker told the committee. “Asking American workers to send more of their paychecks to Washington will hurt growth, and taking money from job creators will hurt job creation.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the other committee co-chair, said she’s ready to agree on “tough” spending cuts, but “compromise runs both ways.”
Even though Congress hasn’t passed a budget since 2009, spending has continued to increase due to entrenched baseline budgeting practices that remain in effect when lawmakers pass temporary funding bills known as continuing resolutions. Cole said it’s an irresponsible way to govern, especially since it delegates congressional authority to the Obama administration: “Even Democrat legislators don’t like it. The Constitution says the decisions are to be made by the Congress. The continuing resolution gives the executive branch that power.”
Cole said the latest attempt to find common ground could work for two primary reasons: Both sides need it to succeed, and neither side likes the sequester. But recent history isn’t encouraging. In 2010, President Barack Obama created the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which produced a plan ignored by both the president and Congress—except when it’s convenient for political posturing. Obama’s summer 2011 negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also couldn’t forge a long-term solution, and the so-called “super committee” in late 2011 never even made a proposal.
Most Republicans on the current conference committee are considered conservatives, but none are the firebrands many have blamed for the shutdown. One of those feisty House conservatives, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., openly acknowledged he needs to figure out how to be more effective in advocating for sound fiscal decisions in Washington.
“I need to be better at persuading people on why raising the debt ceiling for the 82nd time is not good for this country,” Gowdy, a former prosecutor, told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly after lawmakers struck the mid-October deal. “I’m not going to cast any stones at anybody except for myself. I didn’t lose a lot of cases in court, and I haven’t won many cases in politics, so I need to go evaluate my tactics.”
The conference committee has a Dec. 13 deadline to find a way to at least fund the government through fiscal year 2014, which ends Sept. 30. Its next public meeting is set for Nov. 13. Currently the government is funded through Jan. 15, meaning another government shutdown could loom if congressional gridlock remains.
Cole acknowledged the uphill climb facing the committee and said he wasn’t expecting Boehner to choose him for the job. “I was really rather surprised,” he said. “When I heard from speaker’s office, my first reaction was, ‘Well, gosh, what have I done wrong?’”