Biden group scours budget, but 'big-ticket' differences remain

Congressional negotiators have now scoured nearly the entire federal budget in talks to reduce long-term federal deficits, but differences on “big-ticket items” must still be bridged to reach a bipartisan agreement, Vice President Biden said Thursday.

Biden told reporters after a two-hour meeting that his debt committee had identified savings throughout the budget that could be part of a final deal. After three consecutive days of meetings this week, the group will meet as many as four times next week with an eye toward finding consensus on the major sticking points, including changes to the tax code.

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“There are differences that are going to have to be bridged and it won't occur until the end,” Biden said. “We’ve gone through all those discreet elements and the really tough stuff that’s left are the really big-ticket items — and philosophically big-ticket items.”

Democrats are insisting that revenue increases be included, though Republicans have vowed to oppose tax hikes in a deal to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by Aug. 2, the deadline set by the Treasury Department to avoid a first-ever default by the U.S. government. Republicans are pushing for caps on annual spending and significant reforms to entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid – which many Democrats are reluctant to consider.

“We’ve said, if we can agree on the pieces most important to us Democrats — revenue — we’re prepared to agree on some of the things you want in discretionary spending,” Biden said.

He said Democrats were willing to make changes to healthcare policy but not to President Obama’s signature healthcare law signed last year.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the group has decided that they will either have an agreement in principle by July 1 or will announce that they cannot bridge their differences. He did not say what would happen if they failed to produce a deal.

“We have a long way to go before we resolve these issues,” he said.

Thursday’s session focused on non-healthcare mandatory spending, a category that includes items like farm subsidies and federal pensions. It included a review of previous discussions in order to find compromise.

“It was primarily going over some of the issues we went over initially in a rough way at the beginning of the process and trying to pin down where we would actually have agreements,” Van Hollen said. “And, again, I want to emphasize that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”

“Today we spent a lot of time refining ideas for saving funds. It wasn’t a huge amount of funds savings on every one thing but the details are important when you are making policy changes,” he said.

Van Hollen said that revenue proposals were not discussed.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said afterward the discussions were becoming “more granular” in nature. “We’re very serious about seeing if we can come to some sort of resolution,” he said.

Biden reiterated that he was convinced that all members of the group genuinely wanted to strike a deal, including the two Republicans, Cantor and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz).

“Everybody wants an agreement,” the vice president said. “There’s no principal in there that doesn’t want to get an agreement that bends the curve on the long-term debt, is sufficiently realistic to get us $4 trillion over a decade or so in terms of reduction and that in fact will meet the test that everybody has out there who is willing to vote for the debt ceiling to say, ‘This is real.’ ”

Biden singled out Cantor for praise, reciprocating kind words that the GOP leader had heaped on Biden earlier in the week.

“I’ve really enjoyed working with Eric Cantor, for real,” he said. “I mean, it’s been a great pleasant surprise for me. The guy is smart as hell. I don’t want to ruin his reputation. But he really is. He’s smart, and he’s been totally completely straightforward and sincere.”

The vice president said he was confident that any agreement hatched within his group could be sold both to leaders and rank-and-file members of both parties.

“We’ve been appointed by the leadership because we know the principals for whom we speak,” Biden said. “We’re not going to cut any deal that can’t be sold.”