WASHINGTON – As the 29 members of the congressional Budget Conference Committee gathered for opening remarks Wednesday, perhaps the only thing hanging more heavily in the air of the subterranean conference room than the prospect of another budget and debt-limit showdown in early 2014 was the sense of déjà vu.
The differences of opinion seemed no more reconcilable Wednesday than they have for years: raise taxes or cut spending?
It will be Sen. Patty Murray’s job to help navigate a course as the vice chairwoman of the Budget Conference Committee. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the conference committee chairman, has the same task.
The public is not alone in being frustrated and skeptical, Murray, Washington’s senior senator, said after the hearing.
“What is essential right now is restoring the confidence of the American public that we can do our jobs … and not hold the economy hostage,” Murray, a Democrat, said.
A little more than a year ago, she was in charge of the so-called supercommittee, a group of specially selected senators and representatives tasked with finding a budget compromise to ward off automatic cuts known as sequestration.
It couldn’t do that and those cuts took effect. The two houses passed very different budgets and couldn’t agree, or even agree to meet to try to agree.
Then came this month’s budget shutdown and debt-limit showdown, which ended two weeks ago with a temporary fix that requires the conference committee to come up with a compromise budget. That needs to be done by mid-December to have a chance to pass it in both chambers by mid-January or face another shutdown.
Some of the statements Wednesday included:
• “There are plenty of tax cuts and loopholes in the tax code to close,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said.
• Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Democrats and President Barack Obama got a tax increase in the last budget agreement that headed off the so-called fiscal cliff. “Republicans in Congress will not support tax increases, either through the front door or the back door,” he said.
• The national debt and yearly deficits are a “wet blanket” that puts a damper on the nation’s economy, said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
• Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said you can’t say the debt and deficits are serious problems and not close tax loopholes.
• The forced cuts through sequestration were a bad idea that everyone realized were bad when they passed, and must be brought to an end before January, when the Defense Department will take the brunt with some $20 billion in reductions, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
• Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asserted that the nation spends as much as the rest of the world on defense, adding, “Does anyone here really think we can’t cut the Defense Department?”
• Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said he didn’t, not with threat from terrorism around the world.
Much of the meeting seemed designed to lower expectations of any grand bargain being reached before Dec. 13 that would reform the tax code and entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. That’s when the conference committee is scheduled to produce a compromise budget.
“I’m willing to make some compromises,” Murray said.
The Democratic budget passed by the Senate does that, with things like a $275 billion cut in health care programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, over the next 10 years, she said. But Republicans will have to put “some of their sacred cows” on the table, like no new taxes in any form, she added.
Murray noted that there are really no new ideas: Budget writers have looked at everything the committee is likely to consider before.
“My responsibility is, we have to find an agreement, then I have to go back and tell my caucus this is what we have to do,” Murray said.
Rep. Ryan’s job will be even tougher, she said, contending it will be difficult for him to persuade members of the tea party wing of his caucus to accept tax increases, even if they come from closing loopholes.
At the hearing, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, suggested the committee shoot for an attainable target. It may not have time for the grand bargain, he said, but it should have time for a good bargain that lays the groundwork for better results in the future. That way, Congress can have a process to handle crises, not lurch between them, Crapo said.
Murray said she thinks Crapo is right, and that there’s one big difference with what the supercommittee tried, and failed, to accomplish before.
“The difference today is the weight of what we have just come through,” she said. A majority of both houses don’t want to go through that again.