Frustrations mount on pace of budget talks

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Lawmakers are expressing frustration and worry about the slow pace of the House-Senate budget conference.

The 29 conferees face a Dec. 13 deadline to submit a plan but appear to have made no progress so far.

“We are running out of time,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior and Environment, said Wednesday.

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“There’s not that many days left,” said Calvert, who is not a conferee. “Appropriations bills must pass.”

Panelist and Appropriations Committee ranking member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said there is “concern among all of us that we won’t be able to complete our work.”

“Reaching a number by Dec. 13 is absolutely doable. We should get in a room and get that done,” she said. 

The government could enter a second shutdown in January without a deal.

Given the political fallout from that fight, it’s more likely lawmakers would approve an extension of existing funding. But that would lock in $91 billion in indiscriminate sequester cuts that both parties dislike, giving each side some incentive to deal.

“This is a matter of some urgency,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told the panel during its second meeting on Wednesday.

He called for the group to target a deal by the Thanksgiving recess, which he noted is nine legislative days away. Cole also submitted a letter from the leaders of the Appropriations panel calling for a deal by Nov. 22.

“The importance of them coming up with a [budget number] common to the House and the Senate is critical to avoiding the mess we are in now,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Wednesday.

“It will take us at least a month, when we get a number, to put together an omnibus bill with the Senate, at the very minimum,” added Rogers, who has repeatedly expressed frustration about the budget and appropriations process this year.

“Time is of the essence,” he said.

“We need to step up the pace. We need to accelerate things.  Things are moving far too slowly,” panelist Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. “Chairman Ryan should put something in the table right away so we can get moving.”

Van Hollen’s district has been hit hard by the ongoing sequester cuts, but he has also insisted on tax revenue increases as part of a deal.

The difficulty members face was crystallized by Wednesday’s meeting, which quickly devolved into political point-making as Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf testified to the group.

Long-fought battles over whether the deal should include higher taxes is the main obstacle.

Democrats sought to get Elmendorf to say some tax loopholes distort the economy as Republicans attempted to get him to back the idea that President Obama misled the public about people being able to keep their existing healthcare plans under ObamaCare.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said they have had private conversations on the parameters of the deal but indicated no concrete progress.

“We are not there yet,” Ryan said. “There is a big gap between our two budgets ... we have spent a lot of time talking about our differences.”

“Our budgets are dramatically different,” Murray said.

Murray has insisted, including in a weekend op-ed in The Washington Post, that closing “egregious” tax loopholes must be part of any deal. Ryan has said Republicans will not accept any tax hikes.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said that tax breaks should be preserved for a separate tax reform effort he is leading.

Baucus wants to keep those tax breaks so that their revenue can be used to lower broad tax rates as part of tax reform.

On Wednesday, he said he doesn’t think he has to worry about the budget conferees stealing the tax breaks to buy revenue to offset spending cuts.

“They’re opposed to any revenue anyway. So I think it’s a moot question,” he said. 

House Democrats on Wednesday were already seeking to win political capital over the failure of the budget conference, another sign of the pessimism surrounding the talks.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) issued a memo to the caucus on Wednesday, saying Republicans were continuing “to hurtle the country toward yet another fiscal showdown, refusing to rule out another damaging government shutdown over defunding the Affordable Care Act and failing to produce a budget.”

“Instead, they have opposed raising any taxes on the biggest and most profitable corporations or the wealthy to help reduce the deficit — placing that burden squarely on the backs of seniors, students and the middle class,” he said. 

Peter Schroeder, Bernie Becker and Alexandra Jaffe contributed.