You had to squint to see it, but there have been hints lately that the White House, Democrats and Republicans could find a window to have modest-ish budget deal, including at the opening meeting of a budget conference committee Wednesday.
The idea of a sweeping "grand bargain" to reduce long-term deficits is dead as dead could be. Republicans absolutely rule out any tax increases, and Democrats absolutely rule out entitlement cuts without accompanying tax increases. Irresistible force, meet immovable object.
But last week, it appeared that both sides were trying to give themselves a little bit of rhetorical wiggle room, (possibly) setting the stage for a small deal. It would look something like this: Some of the deep sequestration cuts to discretionary spending would be reduced, in exchange for some steps to trim entitlement spending over the longer-term. Democrats wouldn't get an increase in tax rates, but Republicans would acquiesce to some other means of increasing money coming into the government a bit, such as license fees or asset sales.
It's worth emphasizing that even a deal along those lines wouldn't be rocket science. That is the kind of dealmaking that once was routine in Washington: Both sides get some things that they're happy about, making some concessions to get there, and everybody is better off at the end. The Obama administration gets a government better able to function today, and Republicans get some progress at reducing long-term fiscal imbalances due to Social Security and Medicare.
The opening meeting of the Budget Conference Committee Wednesday, the formal forum through which any such deal is to be negotiated, didn't, at first glance, give a ton of reason for hope. "I want to say this from the get-go," said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee Chair. "If this conference becomes an argument about taxes, we’re not going to get anywhere."
Perhaps the biggest basic tension in coming to a deal is this: Democrats view the sequestration spending cuts as something that were designed to be painful to both parties (military spending is being whacked by the cuts), and therefore don't want to make unilateral concessions in order to undo some of them. Many Republicans, at least publicly (defense hawks tend to be the exception) view the spending restraint created by sequestration as a policy win in itself, and only want to undo it in exchange for meaningful concessions from Democrats on entitlements and, as Ryan said, no concessions on taxes.
These next few months will be a test of American governance. This is an area where the ground for some kind of modest compromise seems fertile, and there should be room for better governance without either party walking away from its core principles. A deal could avert another government shutdown this winter, and help the economy have a more predictable, steady backdrop.
“I think there is a different spirit today,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, at Wednesday's hearing. “I think we have the potential to reconcile the differences we have.”
But a few mildly conciliatory comments at a budget hearing won't cut it. The question is what happens when rubber hits road, and Ryan and House Republicans have to agree to a deal that gets out of the world of abstractions and into the practical situation of requiring a majority vote of a caucus that views compromise as a dirty word.