By Erik Wasson - 10/22/13 06:15 PM EDT
The new House-Senate budget conference is expected to meet for the first time on Oct. 30.
With the Senate out this week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are quietly preparing the groundwork for talks that will begin next week.
Ryan, Murray and the other conference members are expected to tackle entitlement and tax reform and spending cuts, though there is pessimism that the sides will be able to reach an agreement after the failure of similar groups.
It's not clear what specifics Ryan and Murray have talked about so far, although the real horse-trading isn't expected to begin until the conference meets for the first time.
Ryan, Murray and Senate ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and House ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) planned to hold an organizing conference call on Wednesday.
The conference is charged with coming to an agreement by Dec. 13 and a key aim will be finding a top-line discretionary spending level for fiscal 2014, which began on Oct. 1. So far the House and Senate are $91 billion apart on their preferred top-line numbers.
The government, which re-opened last Thursday after a 16-day shutdown, is now operating under a $987 billion top-line budget. Fifteen days after Congress adjourns, the spending level will be cut by another round of sequestration to $968 billion.
Funding runs out on Jan. 15 and appropriators hope that a budget agreement will give them enough time to pass a giant omnibus spending bill by that time.
The budget conference could also produce a wider deficit agreement that eases passage of another increase in the debt ceiling by Feb. 7.
To achieve this, both sides must move off from very different starting positions, however: the Senate budget contains nearly $1 trillion in tax hikes and spending increases, while the House budget would balance it in 10 years by cutting $5.7 trillion in spending.
—This report was updated at 3:40 p.m.