Chastened by three years of budget showdowns and economic near-calamities, the 22 senators and seven House members on a new budget conference committee expressed fresh eagerness to end the era of government by crisis. Democrats, for instance, said they are ready to swap sharp but temporary cuts to federal agencies, known as the sequester, for permanent “structural changes” to federal health programs long sought by Republicans.
“I’m ready to make some tough concessions to get a deal,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the lead negotiator for Senate Democrats.
“But compromise runs both ways,” Murray warned. “Republicans are also going to have to work with us to scour the bloated tax code and close some wasteful tax loopholes and special interest subsidies, because it is unfair and unacceptable to ask seniors and families to bear this burden alone.”
Republicans, however, appear unwilling to make that trade, even with the sequester poised to slice another $20 billion from the Pentagon in January.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the conference committee and a close ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), repeated his assertion that higher tax “revenue ought to be on the table.” But Cole limited his suggestions to such GOP-friendly ideas as selling off federal assets and giving corporations incentives to bring profits back home from overseas — a far cry from the assault on big-business tax breaks Democrats envision.
Meanwhile, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the lead negotiator for House Republicans, said tax loopholes should be closed only in the context of comprehensive tax reform, so the money raised could be given back to taxpayers in the form of lower rates.
“Our tax code is full of carve-outs and kickbacks. We need to get rid of them. And bipartisan talks [over tax reform] are just the way to do it,” Ryan said.
The budget talks, on the other hand, should be limited to cutting spending “in a smarter way,” Ryan said. He added, “If this conference becomes an argument about taxes, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
The back and forth over taxes is just the latest version of the battle Republicans and Democrats have been fighting since the GOP took control of the House in 2011 on a promise to rein in the national debt, which was then spiraling out of control.
Since then, a series of budget deals — and an improving economy — have dramatically slowed federal borrowing. On Wednesday, the White House budget office announced that the government recorded a $680 billion deficit in the fiscal year that ended in September, less than half the size of the shortfall President Obama inherited in 2009 when measured as a percentage of the economy.