By Alexander Bolton - 11/08/13 06:00 AM EST
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has quietly established a group of about a dozen GOP senators to come up with budget alternatives in case the bicameral conference committee fails to reach a deal.
McConnell, who faces a tough primary and general election in 2014, wants to avoid another government shutdown at the beginning of next year and to ensure his conference is unified on how to proceed if the budget conferees can't come to an agreement.
The GOP took a hit in the polls after the shutdown, shouldering most of the blame. McConnell's group, which represents a cross section of the conference, met Wednesday afternoon to explore the options in case they face a similar situation if the budget conference committee fails to meet its Jan. 15 deadline.
Lawmakers who participated in the meeting say they hope Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) reach an agreement.
“If they don’t, you have to start going through what some of the other options and contingencies might be,” said a lawmaker who attended the meeting.
Several lawmakers in the working group say the chances of deal emerging from the budget conference are extremely small.
“No one around here thinks there’s a snowball’s chance in hell there’s going to be a deal because the Democrats are so dug in on raising taxes,” said one lawmaker.
One participant provided a partial list of members of the working group, which includes Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and John Thune (S.D.), the Senate Republican Conference chairman.
“I was just asked to participate in a working group to consider what to do with the budget going forward,” said Murkowski. “We’re trying to work through some of the issues.
“I think it’s a good cross-section of folks,” she said.
“We’re in the process of trying to see, generally, what some of the options are and perhaps figure out how we might help reach a solution,” said Thune.
Missing from the gathering are Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) — two Tea Party members who split the GOP conference by pushing an aggressive strategy to defund ObamaCare during the last round of fiscal talks.
Many senior Republicans thought the plan would fail and have since blamed it for the GOP’s low approval rating.
“There’s not a lot of stomach for another government shutdown,” said another lawmaker who attended Wednesday’s meeting.
Lawmakers who participated in the meeting say the No. 1 goal of the group is to coalesce around the demand that any budget deal reached by next January maintain the spending cuts established by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The group’s second priority is to give federal agencies and Congress more flexibility to manage spending levels established under sequestration.
A third priority is to achieve savings in mandatory spending programs such as Social Security and Medicare. This last goal is seen as a reach, given that Democrats have demanded pairing tax increases to any reforms of the major entitlement programs.
Most lawmakers in the group have ruled out raising taxes as part of any medium-sized deal to fund government through 2014 and turn off sequestration.
If the Senate-House conference cannot agree to a budget resolution by Dec. 13, it will likely fall to McConnell again to negotiate a fiscal deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
In this second round of talks, McConnell wants to make sure his conference is unified behind him.
Republican senators are negotiating with Democrats in other ad hoc groups to lay the groundwork for a future fiscal deal.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have revived the Common Sense Coalition, which helped Senate leaders reach a deal to open the government and raise the debt limit last month.
A group of former governors, including Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), has also held meetings in hopes of creating the basis for future bipartisan cooperation on fiscal and other issues, according to Senate sources.
— This story was updated at 11:20 a.m.