On the first day they met, they agreed to meet again.
At the end of the first Senate and House budget conference since 2009, that was pretty much the only tangible that could be taken away. The committee, which was formed at the end of the last government shutdown in hopes of preventing the next, has been tasked with recommending a compromise that would set a new budget for the coming year. The 29 conferees will next gather in public on November 13, a month before the conference is to report its recommendations to Congress.
From the beginning of Wednesday’s session, the two political parties proved once again that they share little common ground and contradicting priorities. In their opening statements, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) failed to mention sequestration and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) failed to mention the national debt. The only time Murray mentioned the deficit was to say that it had been cut in half since 2011. Ryan mentioned the national debt eight times, including at the conclusion of his speech when he advocated for making a down payment on the debt.
“Everybody was part of the problem, so everybody has to be part of the solution,” said Ryan, referring to the $17 trillion debt. “But you’ve got to make an accurate diagnosis before you can fill out a prescription.”
The conferees’ statements, like the House and Senate budgets, reflect a stark difference in governing philosophy. For example, the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said the sequester “is in law and must be maintained.” His counterpart in the House, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), favors replacing sequestration, calling it “job-killing.”
The proximity of such ideologically opposed men and women around the square table led to some amusing exchanges. Citing polls, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) began by saying that the American people don’t want cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Without notes his voice rose on the issue of unemployment and its prevalence among young adults and minority groups. He then went on a tirade against overseas corporate tax havens and the bloated Department of Defense. “Do not balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable people in this country—the elderly, the children, the sick, working families,” said Sanders.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), smiling, then took his turn. “I like Sen. Sanders, but I disagree with virtually everything he said,” Graham stated to laughter. “And that brings us to what we’re trying to do here, reconcile his worldview with mine. And they’re different—it’s like we’re on different political planets here,” Graham then turned the conversation to tackling the national debt.
The likeliest outcome of such a diverse conference, short of abject failure, is that a majority of the 22 senators and a majority of the 7 congressmen will find a way to ameliorate some of the sequester’s cuts, scheduled to total nearly $110 billion for the 2014 fiscal year. Even this will prove problematic, however, as some Democrats continue to push for a “balanced” approach, with revenue raisers as part of any deal.
“We continue to hear from our Republican colleagues an unwillingness to close a single tax loophole for the purpose of reducing the deficit or replacing sequester,” said Van Hollen after the conference. “So that sounds like a line in the sand to me. But again, maybe this kind of discussion will change some minds.”
While most Republicans did not address or refused to support raising revenue as part of a compromise, Deputy House Whip Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said that there were some tax deductions he could accept in an agreement with Democrats. “There are a number of pro-growth policies that, if enacted, would generate significant revenues for the federal government and grow our economy,” said Cole. “Policies like repatriation of corporate profits from overseas, expanded oil and gas exploration both offshore and on federal land, one-time federal asset sales and the like.”
“More revenue doesn’t and shouldn’t mean higher taxes,” he added.
The last person to give their remarks was Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who quoted an 1862 speech by President Abraham Lincoln. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,” said King. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
The congressmen smiled and Sessions tapped the table in agreement. Maybe, it was a small start.