Reid, Ryan spar over budget conference

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blasted House Republicans and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Tuesday for stalling the creation of a House-Senate conference committee on the budget.

Ryan said Tuesday he wants a “framework” in place before he will agree to form a conference, the next step under regular order in reconciling the wildly different House and Senate budget resolutions.

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“We want to go to conference when we feel we have a realistic chance of getting an agreement,” Ryan told reporters Tuesday after a hearing. “We don’t want to conference when we have an endless process that focuses on our differences.”

Pressed on what a “framework” would consist of, Ryan said he does not know exactly what it would entail.

“This is what we have to discover and explore,” he said. “What we want to do is have constructive dialogues to find out where the common ground is and go to conference when we have a realistic chance of coming out with an agreement.” 

Hours later, Reid shot back that Ryan is holding things up. 

 “Chairman Ryan said ‘we want to have a pre-conference.’ Well you can’t have it both ways. Does he want regular order? Obviously not,” said Reid, whom Republicans have criticized for failing to move a budget over the last four years.

He dismissed GOP demands for regular order as “happy talk.”

“We have had Republicans yelling and screaming, sometimes violently, to have regular order,” he said. 

Now that Senate Democrats have approved their first budget in four years, “they’re not interested in regular order,” the majority leader said.

Democratic aides say they suspect the House GOP is trying to avoid having the spotlight shine on its unwillingness to agree to raise taxes as part of a deficit-reduction deal, especially after President Obama included some entitlement cuts in his budget.

Reid noted that the Senate physically sent its budget resolution Monday to the House so Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could take the procedural step of appointing conferees.

Reid could force Boehner’s hand by trying to pass a motion to go to conference, though Senate Republicans could seek to block him. Reid on Tuesday avoided saying whether he would take that step.

For now, Reid said Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) would be “asking” for the chance to go to conference.

“Yes we sent our … resolution to the House yesterday. And Chairman Murray is going to start asking quite often for the ability to go to conference,” Reid said.

He said Boehner, during White House fiscal talks, said there could be a serious discussion on further deficit reduction once the Senate passed a budget.

“And at the White House the Speaker said we’ll look forward to doing something more when we get a budget. We’ve done it, they’ve done it, and there’s still no talks,” Reid complained.

Boehner’s office insisted he is seeking to convene a formal conference.

“While there are stark differences between the House Republican budget, which balances, and the Senate Democratic one, which doesn’t, we are very hopeful that the talks between Chairmen Ryan and Murray are productive and will lead to a formal conference,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “That’s our goal, and we hope it’s the goal of Senate Democrats as well.” 

Murray on Tuesday expressed frustration with the Ryan talks but said she is willing to continue them up until a point.

“Everybody in America is telling us they are tired of going from crisis to crisis. Everyone has said we need regular order,” Murray said.

“I am happy to sit down and talk with Chairman Ryan and have been about the best path to move forward within the conference committee. You have to understand I have been having a framework discussion for two years. It is really important we go in regular order,” she said.

The House-passed budget cuts $4.6 trillion in spending and balances over 10 years without raising taxes. The Senate budget, in contrast, raises nearly $1 trillion in new taxes.

It does not balance and would increase spending compared to a current-law baseline because it turns off the automatic spending cuts under the sequester. It also proposes new stimulus spending.

Ryan met with Murray last week and said talks would continue. 

“We are going to keep talking and we’re going to keep meeting, and that’s our plan,” Ryan said.

In 2011, Ryan didn’t participate in the deficit supercommittee, which Murray co-chaired and which failed in its mission to find $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts. Critics said Ryan ducked the supercommittee to avoid being tarred by its failure.

Ryan said he wants to see a budget conference committee, which he predicted has a better chance at success than the supercommittee.  

“I didn’t do the supercommittee because I didn’t see that it was going to lead to anything,” he said. “I think this has a much better chance of leading somewhere.”

At the time, Ryan said he asked not to serve on the supercommittee so that he could focus on reforming the regular budget process.  

Ryan spoke after a hearing in which Treasury Secretary Jack Lew defended Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget. Lew said the Treasury cannot pinpoint when the debt ceiling will need to be raised.

The need for Congress to raise that ceiling could provoke a familiar fiscal showdown between the White House and House Republicans eager for more spending cuts.

Without an agreement on the budget, House and Senate appropriators are also proceeding with vastly different spending bills for 2014. The House is using a maximum spending total of $966 billion, and the Senate is using $1.058 trillion. The difference means another government shutdown crisis looms when fiscal 2014 arrives on Oct. 1 of this year.