Budget panel blows first deadline

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Congressional budget conferees on Monday failed to meet a deadline set by appropriators for a top-line budget number.

The blown deadline raises the odds that Congress will need at least a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running after Jan. 15.

Appropriators had called on the House-Senate conference to get a deal by Dec. 2 to ensure they had time to complete detailed spending bills, but the informal deadline was never endorsed by the leaders of the conference.

Sources say a small budget deal remains possible before the committee’s official deadline on Dec. 13, though this week is pivotal.

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Even though the Senate is out of session until next week, Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will return to Washington this week for negotiations with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House budget panel’s chairman. 

The House plans to adjourn for the year on Dec. 13. Therefore, a deal must be reached soon if lawmakers are to vote on it before the Christmas break.

Conferees are trying to reach an agreement that could turn off some of the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester, which already started to go into effect this fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Patience among some conferees is wearing thin.

“There is no question that the budget conference should be moving at a faster pace.  House appropriators asked for a deal ‘by Dec. 2nd at the latest’ — and yet, almost seven weeks later, we still don’t have an agreement. This is simply unacceptable,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), one of the conferees, said Monday.

A key GOP aide is also anxious. 

“We hear that the budget negotiators are getting close to a deal, and we certainly hope that is the case,” the aide said. “However, each day that goes by eats into our time to craft a full-year funding bill, and makes it exponentially harder to finish this work before the deadline.”

Without a deal, the staffer said $20 billion in new automatic cuts will be imposed on the Pentagon. 

The informal Dec. 2 deadline was set by the chiefs of the House and Senate spending panels. They said they needed the top-line spending number by then to write and pass a detailed 12-bill omnibus spending package before Jan. 16.

The government has been operating for more than a year on broad stopgap measures and House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Senate Appropriations  Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) want the chance to reprioritize spending on countless government projects through a full-scale appropriations package. 

Despite the blown deadline, some still think an omnibus is possible.

“At worst a delay in nailing down the final number may mean another very short term CR to provide time to finalize an omnibus,” said budget expert Ed Lorenzen of the Center for Responsible Federal Budget.

The House’s first day in 2014 is Jan. 7, meaning much work would have to be done behind closed doors by staff.

“Whatever the deal is, it will be decided behind closed doors and sprung on lawmakers and taxpayers with days at most to examine the massive spending package,” warned Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Several sticking points must be overcome for Ryan and Murray to reach even a small budget deal to replace a third or less of the $91 billion in sequester cuts scheduled in both 2014 and 2015.  

As of Thanksgiving, Democrats were still pushing to end certain tax breaks as part of a deal, according to several sources. 

GOP officials say they could agree to use other sources for revenue, which could include aviation fees and increased pension contributions for federal workers. 

The idea of increased contributions to the Federal Employees Retirement System drew scorn from unions last week, though since both Ryan and President Obama have proposed increasing the contribution rate, it remains a possible area of compromise.

Transportation Security Agency fees could be increased by imposing the $2.50 fee on each leg of a multi-stop journey instead of on the first leg. Such a change is strongly opposed by the Alaska delegation.

Increasing premiums for the government’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which insures private sector pensions at risk of collapse, has been on the table but businesses and unions have opposed the fees in the past as anti-growth and anti-worker. 

Striking a small deal could help a Congress with a record low approval rating start to convince the public that it can still function. 

“The only benefit would be to show that Congress can still work to create deals, however small,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said.

Russell Berman contributed.