“The tone was positive,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told reporters at the Capitol after Tuesday’s Blair House huddle. “People are serious about trying to find common ground, but again, I want to emphasize the fact that we’re focused now on trying to identify those areas. There are obviously large areas of disagreement that we have not engaged on yet.”
Vice President Biden, who is leading the talks, shared Van Hollen’s cautious optimism, telling reporters that “everybody is being straight and cordial” and the negotiators were “going through what we agree on and what we disagree on,” the Associated Press reported.
But Biden added: “Whether we get to the finish line with this group is another question.”
That was a markedly different tone than the one Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took earlier Tuesday. McConnell, who has tapped Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) to represent Senate Republicans in the talks, said that he believed the Biden-led negotiations were the only way that both parties would be able to agree on a deficit-reduction deal ahead of an August deadline for raising the country’s debt limit.
Democrats in the talks have been working off the deficit-reduction plan outlined by President Obama in a speech last month at George Washington University, while Republicans are working from the fiscal year 2012 budget blueprint drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Those two plans share a similar goal of reducing the deficit by $4 trillion. But they differ in their timelines -- Obama’s plan would reach its target in 12 years, while the Ryan plan would do so in a decade -– and, more significantly, in the way they would reach the finish line -– Obama and Democrats have argued that tax increases need to be part of any final plan, while Republicans have said that any plan that raises taxes would be a non-starter.
Van Hollen said Tuesday that in the talks the parties have been hashing out whatever common ground they do share while engaging on the tougher issues only “at a general level.”
“Obviously, the harder discussions will come when we get to those areas where there’s not common ground and where there’s going to be more give-and-take. ... I think everybody understands what those areas are,” Van Hollen said.
More than two months remain until the country reaches its borrowing limit, but the talks may pause next week while the House is out of session. That leaves one more week in May for the talks to resume. Then, things look likely to come to a halt again during the first week of June, when Biden will be traveling to Italy and the Senate will be in a week-long recess.