President Obama will unveil his 2014 spending plan Wednesday, 65 days late and several trillion dollars short, by Republican standards, of effectively reining in the national debt.
But the more relevant fact about the White House budget may be the yawning political void into which it is about to fall on Capitol Hill.
Administration officials say their plan offers a path to compromise, a centrist course that avoids the extreme spending cuts of the House Republican budget as well as the $1 trillion tax hike endorsed last month by Senate Democrats.
The president’s proposal contains the same set of policies that Republicans rejected just a few months ago during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. Putting that plan into writing has failed to change many GOP minds, but it allows Obama to argue that he has met their demands to cut Social Security and Medicare. And it sets him up to blame Republican intransigence over taxes if a deal fails to materialize before Congress faces another showdown over the federal debt limit this summer.
An actual deal remains elusive, however. It is not even clear who will do the negotiating.
The Republican architects of past agreements — House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — have taken themselves off the playing field, saying they are not interested in any more backroom talks with the White House.
House Republicans are also resisting appointing a conference committee that would be led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and would bring together negotiators from both chambers.
Meanwhile, Obama’s campaign to woo GOP moderates and form a “caucus of common sense” in the Senate is moving at a glacial pace and producing few converts.
“I really appreciate the president reaching out and trying to meet with members. So I commend him for that,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), one of a dozen Senate Republicans invited to dinner Wednesday at the White House, Obama’s second dinner date with GOP senators.
“I look forward to seeing what he wants to discuss,” Hatch said. “Unfortunately, it seems to always come down to revenues and more and more taxes. And we’re just not going to do that.”
The murkiness of the road ahead is partly a sign that messy fiscal issues have been sidelined by progress on other parts of the president’s agenda.
Senate leaders hope to spend most of the spring debating tighter gun laws and new immigration standards, two pieces of legislation that have won at least initial support from rank-and-file Republicans.
Administration officials have said Obama’s outreach to GOP senators is motivated as much by a desire to build support for those issues as for a budget deal.
Wednesday evening’s soiree is being organized by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who could be a key vote on all three issues. Other attendees include Hatch and Sens. John Boozman (Ark.), Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and John Thune (S.D.). Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho) would not confirm or deny whether he plans to attend.
“As was the case the first time the president had dinner with a dozen Republican senators, this will be a private dinner where the president looks forward to discussing a range of subjects, including, of course, budget and fiscal matters, but also immigration reform and the effort to pass common-sense legislation to reduce gun violence and other issues,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.
At some point, however, the dam will have to break on the budget.
Many senior Democrats say that a big deal is probably unnecessary this summer and that Republicans are so eager to avoid a repeat of the 2011 debt-limit fight that they will find a way to approve a debt-ceiling increase without asking for much in return.
But Republicans and some Democrats call that a fantasy scenario.
“The common view is that we’ve got from now until the debt ceiling to do something,” said John Cornyn (Tex.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. “But I don’t see a lot of changes in position that would inspire a lot of hope.”