After two years of anxious, high-wire negotiations over the federal budget, an exhausted Washington is about to hand the mess back over to the experts: the chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees.
In the next few weeks, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will roll out competing proposals for taming the national debt. If lightning strikes, both sides hold out hope that a Ryan-Murray conference committee could become the forum for litigating the partisan dispute over taxes and spending.
Especially if President Obama makes headway in his new outreach campaign to Republicans, a Ryan-Murray summit could produce the big deal that would let Congress avoid another nasty fight over the federal debt limit, which is once again looming in August.
“This whole thing will come to a crescendo this summer, and we’re going to have to talk to each other to get an agreement about how to delay a debt crisis,” Ryan said Wednesday, adding that the need to raise the debt limit should give both parties incentive to cut a deal.
“Our goal is to get a down payment on this problem for America,” Ryan said, “to get cuts and reforms that get us on a path to a balanced budget so we can prevent a debt crisis from taking down our economy.”
In a briefing for reporters, Ryan declined to discuss details of the budget framework he plans to reveal next week and put to a vote in the House before the Easter break. In general, he said, the new framework contains no “big surprises” for those familiar with the budget proposal the House adopted last year.
Thanks to higher taxes approved during the “fiscal cliff” fight and other changes in the 10-year budget outlook, Ryan said he had to make only “modest changes” to last year’s budget framework in order to meet the GOP’s new goal of wiping out deficits entirely by 2023.
Still, last year’s GOP budget hardly charted a path to bipartisan agreement. It proposed cutting deeply into domestic programs, and it would have converted many programs for the poor, such as food stamps and Medicaid, into state block grants with few federal controls. It eschewed higher taxes as a source of deficit reduction. And it proposed far-reaching changes to Medicare that would end the program’s open-ended guarantee for people 54 and younger.
Senate Democrats haven’t adopted a budget since 2009, Obama’s first year in office. Murray has said her framework — which also will be unveiled next week — will propose replacing the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester in part with higher taxes. Democratic aides said that revenue would come from a far-reaching overhaul of the tax code under a fast-track process known as “reconciliation.”
Democrats have no intention of doing away with deficits in the next decade, and people in both parties concede that it’s hard to see how Murray and Ryan reconcile their divergent visions.
But Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee, has the trust of House conservatives. And Murray, who led the 2012 effort to maintain control of the Senate, has the trust of Democratic leaders. If the two of them could actually reach an agreement, the thinking goes, their respective parties would be sure to follow.