WASHINGTON – With hopes of a “grand bargain” long gone, congressional negotiators now are seeking a more modest deal before year-end to ease the automatic spending cuts that are squeezing both the Pentagon and domestic federal programs. But the going is getting rougher.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she would withhold support from any compromise to ease across-the-board cuts until Republicans also agree to renew expiring unemployment benefits for America’s long-term jobless, adding a major complication.
At the same time, conservatives are balking at a proposal to raise fees on airline tickets to pay for TSA agents as part of an agreement, another hurdle.
GOP leaders, meanwhile, are preparing a backup plan for averting another government shutdown in January, if there’s no budget deal by then.
Negotiators on Capitol Hill are trying hard to close out a deal but are facing resistance from Pelosi and other Democrats determined to add $25 billion to extend federally paid jobless benefits. Those benefits average $269 a week to people whose 26 weeks of state-paid unemployment benefits have run out.
“We cannot, cannot support a budget agreement that does not include unemployment insurance in the budget or as a sidebar in order to move it all along,” Pelosi said Thursday at a hearing to publicize the plight of people set to lose the jobless benefits.
Her statement was significant because she is going to have to supply Democratic votes if any deal is going to pass the Republican-majority House. Many conservatives are likely to abandon a compromise agreement over fee proposals such as increasing Transportation Security Administration charges that could add $5 to the cost of a typical round-trip airline ticket.
“If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. “This is a tax increase, nothing more.”
The budget talks are just one item in a packed year-end agenda for Congress. House Speaker John Boehner insists the House will exit Washington by next Friday.
As for the overall budget, talk of a “grand bargain” to stabilize the government’s spiraling debt is no longer heard. Taxes and cuts to Medicare benefits are off the table. House and Senate negotiators are trying to seal a small-bore budget pact that would take the roughest edges off automatic spending cuts that threaten a second wave of furloughs of federal workers and damage to military readiness.
Exact details are tightly held, and days of negotiations likely remain. But House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., are focusing on a potential pact that leaves politically toxic proposals like taxes off the table and instead focuses on less controversial proposals left over from prior budget rounds.
Spokesmen for Murray and Ryan are cautiously hopeful that a pact can be sealed.
“Conversations continue and a number of open items remain, but Chairman Murray is hopeful that they can continue making progress and can reach a bipartisan deal,” said Murray spokesman Eli Zupnick. “They are making progress,” said Ryan spokesman William Allison.
If the talks fall apart, Boehner says he’ll advance a short-term spending bill known as a continuing resolution before the current stopgap spending bill expires on Jan. 15, but there’s real anxiety among Republicans as to whether such a measure could pass without additional money to attract Democrats and GOP defense hawks.
Also Thursday, Boehner held the door open for possibly extending the emergency unemployment benefits program.
“If the president has a plan for extending unemployment benefits, I’d truly entertain taking a look at it,” he said.
“It doesn’t have to be in the same legislative bill as a budget agreement, but we want to see a commitment and a way that we’re going to get (jobless aid) done by the end of this year,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Pelosi’s top representative in the budget talks.