Budget conference getting wide range of advice

The current budget conference is getting wildly different advice from outside groups, illustrating why the negotiators are focusing on a smaller deal.

On Wednesday, a coalition of liberal groups urged lawmakers to take the so-called “grand bargain” of tax and entitlement reform off the table – arguing, for instance, that Social Security benefits should get a boost, not be cut.

Meanwhile, the fiscally hawkish Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said that lawmakers should use the budget process to pave the way for “real deficit reduction and reform.”

That advice came on the first official meeting of the 29 budget conferees, who comprise the first House-Senate budget conference in four years.

At that meeting, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the negotiators should focus on “achievable goals,” as the conference looks for a deal that would replace some or all sequestration cuts.

Still, Ryan and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) clashed over whether tax revenues should be used to help pay for any deal on Wednesday, underscoring the challenge negotiators face.

Around 25 liberal figures – including officials with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, MoveOn and Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO – said in their Wednesday letter that Social Security benefits could be expanded if wealthier workers pay more into the system.

“In upcoming budget negotiations, a Grand Bargain that cuts Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits must be off the table,” the liberal officials wrote.

Instead, they said that “Congress should focus on important priorities such as jobs and investment in our nation's infrastructure.”

On the other side of the debate, CRFB said that the budget conference had the tools to put into place tax and entitlement reform, and should deal with Social Security on a separate track. K Street groups are also pushing for tax reform, while acknowledging that may be more ambitious than what the conferees are seeking.

“The growing costs of Medicare and Medicaid, due both to population aging and rising overall health costs, represent the biggest threat to the country's fiscal future,” CRFB said Wednesday.

“Realistically, there is no way that lawmakers could truly address the long-term debt problem without addressing federal health spending.”