Sick of the Sequester and the Current Budget Crisis? Here’s One Answer

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J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

At the Senate Democratic caucus lunch on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland presented her colleagues with a plan to solve the current budget crisis and the sequester woes. Her idea is relatively simple: keep the government funded at current levels for two months so the Appropriations Committee, which she chairs, can deliberate and present an omnibus bill. Majority Leader Harry Reid will file an amendment to the current deliberations to prevent a shutdown through November 15.

“The best way to stop lurching on this crisis to the next crisis is to get back into funding our government the way the Founding Fathers set it out, through the appropriations process,” said Reid after the lunch.

Mikulski believes that a method for altering the current budget mess left by sequestration’s across-the-board cuts is even more important than the actual funding levels. “The House CR [continuing resolution] accepts the sequester as the new normal. I fundamentally reject that,” Mikulski told TIME. “The number is negotiable. Do I want a higher number? Yes. Am I willing to negotiate and compromise? Yes. Am I willing to capitulate? Not very likely.”

It is not yet clear how the proposal will be viewed by her Republican colleagues, but considering that Congress failed to pass any of its 12 annual appropriations bills this year, and the Senate and the House have not agreed to a budget resolution since 2009, every hint of optimism for a budget must be viewed with skepticism. Reid said that Mikulski and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, who spoke in favor of the proposal at lunch, have already reached out to some Republicans. Murray “continues to keep the lines of communication open with [House Budget Committee] Chairman [Paul] Ryan,” said Eli Zupnick, a Senate Budget Committee spokesman. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has not read the proposal yet, agrees that “the whole notion of a CR,” the current way the U.S. government is funded, “is not a particularly sensible thing.”

“You want to weigh in on the policies and each division of spending and make sure you do everything you can to make it more efficient. A CR just continues to build in old policies that in many cases are outdated and need to be changed,” said Corker. “If there’s a way for us to deal with government spending in regular order, it’s a much, much better way for us to run this government. Especially with the sequester in place you can make changes keeping within those caps that allow each of the departments to run better, I mean that is what we’re hired to do.”

How the Republicans will react is key to the success of the Mikulski proposal, which leaves open the question of a debt limit showdown. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor believes, according to the National Review, that Republicans’ position on delaying Obamacare is actually stronger while arguing over how much the Treasury can borrow. So it is possible that Mikulski will have the headache of dealing with an even more aggressive fight over the debt ceiling than now, while she is trying to pass an omnibus bill. Mikulski’s strategy relies in part upon House Republicans’ desire to get rid of sequestration, which as she mentions, they left in their government funding resolution last week.

Which is why the Democrats’ cheers of Mikulski’s proposal was qualified with little enthusiasm for working with their Republican colleagues. Murray is “certainly frustrated that Republicans have blocked a budget conference and have pushed us to the precipice of a crisis,” said Zupnick. “But now that we’re here, she thinks the responsible thing to do is do a short-term clean bill that keeps government open while negotiations continue.”

“Sen. Mikulski I think has a clear vision for how to move us forward,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who sits on the Appropriations Committee. “Through what is a completely manufactured crisis and completely unconstructive and unnecessary chaos being imposed upon our legislative process by a few extremists in the Republican Party.”

“I support Sen. Mikulski,” said Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who added that Mikulski is “usually very persuasive.”  “I think the sooner we get back to regular order with appropriation bills the better it is. Just replaying last year’s budget is a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

“I can’t tell you how the Republicans will react.”