White House backs conference committee as path to debt deal

The White House on Thursday endorsed a conference committee as the best path forward for a deficit deal and said President Obama will not engage in back-door negotiations over the debt ceiling.

White House Acting Budget Director Jeff Zients said the administration supports the move by budget chairmen Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to try and reconcile the vastly different budget resolutions passed by the House and Senate.

“Regular order is the way to proceed,” Zients said.

Ryan and Murray met Wednesday to try to set up the rare budget conference committee. Ryan said he sees the possibility for reaching a small deal with Democrats based on the limited entitlement cuts that were included in President Obama's budget.

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The House is waiting for the Senate to formally send the budget text over before it can appoint conferees, according to Ryan. Senate leaders have been meeting on when to take the next steps.

“I’ve been talking to Chairman Ryan about my desire to move to the next step in this process under regular order and do everything possible in a conference committee to bring the House and Senate budgets together,” Murray said Thursday. “I know it will be difficult, but it’s what the American people expect — and I think we owe it to them to make it work.” 

Zients said Obama will not negotiate behind closed doors over an increase in the debt ceiling, as he did in August 2011. The $16 trillion limit will have to be raised again this summer.

“What will put the credit rating in jeopardy is another manufactured crisis. The president has made very clear he will not negotiate around the debt ceiling,” he aid. 

Zients dodged when pressed by House Budget Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) about whether the White House would submit Obama’s 2014 budget in legislative form so it can get a vote.

Price said that the House wants to vote on the Obama plan, but when it has drafted documents based on previous Obama budgets, the GOP has been accused of writing it wrongly. 

“We’d love to be able to have a vote on the budget in the House of Representatives,” Price said.

The budget director defended Obama’s budget against attacks from both Republicans and Democrats on the House panel.

Zients told Republicans that the fact that the budget does not balance is the right policy given economic conditions.

“The president believes that we have to put the country on a sustainable fiscal path. Even more important is putting people back to work,” Zients said. “Deficit reduction … in and of itself is not an economic plan. We have to put people back to work."

“If we didn’t pass this budget, the deficit would be reduced faster,” Ryan countered. 

“I think your numbers are garbage,” Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) chimed in. 

Zients also had to defend the budget from his own party. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) laid into the budget director for the budget’s change to inflation calculations, which will reduce Social Security benefits. 

Zients said that the cuts were in the budget as part of a compromise and they were demanded by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“Let’s not blame the other side,” Pascrell yelled. “This is our budget.”

Democrats Rep. Marc Pocan (D-Wis.) and Rep. Michelle Grisham (D-N.M.) also challenged Zients on the chained consumer price index proposal and cited their own mothers' financial situations. 

Zients said that the chained CPI proposal is not a cut in benefits but a cut in the growth of benefits. He also said the Obama proposal bumps up payments to seniors older than 75.

“We have had one crisis after the other, we need to put deficit reduction behind us,” he said of the attempt to compromise. 

Budget Committee ranking member Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said that while he had “concerns” with some aspects of the Obama budget, Republicans should give Obama credit for making his offer.

“The president has clearly indicated a willingness to meet the Republicans more than halfway,” he said.

Van Hollen said that House Democrats will press Boehner "every day" to appoint conferees for budget negotiations.

"We have not seen any commitment to appointing them, that's what we are looking for," he said. He said House Republicans are afraid to put their budget, which slashed spending by $4.6 trillion and cuts anti-poverty programs, side-by-side with the Senate approach.

"Their approach has been rejected by the American people," Van Hollen said. "They don't want any more sunlight on it."

At the end of the hearing Zients was grilled by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) on whether the president had violated the law by not submitting his budget by the first Monday in February and Zients did not directly answer that question.

"The budget is here today," he said. 

— This story was updated at 1:19 p.m. and 2:25 p.m.