One Month from Deadline, Congressional Budget Talks in Limbo

Democrats and Republicans struggle to find common ground in talks to avoid the next spending fight.

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Budget-conference committee chairs Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) listen as Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf testifies to the committee on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013.

After two hours in a large, cold room on Capitol Hill, the second congressional budget conference proved that the government shutdown has not yet motivated members to compromise on a fiscal path forward.

“We need to step up the pace,” said House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) after the meeting. “Things are moving far too slowly.”

But the sides are stuck: Democrats want to replace the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester, which will chop $109 billion off the top of nearly all defense and non-defense programs in 2014, with a mix of targeted spending cuts and tax revenue generated through closing some tax deductions. Republicans believe that closing tax loopholes should take place in a broader tax reform discussion, which has been led by Congressmen who aren’t members of the conference: House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). The House Republican leadership is expected to discuss the prospect of bringing a tax reform bill to the floor this year in a closed-door meeting Thursday.

“Simply closing a loophole or two is not going to get us the economic growth and the jobs that we desperately need,” Camp told TIME.

And some Republicans don’t even want to replace sequestration, the primary leverage for getting a short-term fix done.

“Sequestration is working,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “Compromising on sequester for more money on the military I think is short-sighted.”

But the conference’s guest speaker, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf, affirmed Wednesday that sequestration had been a “headwind” to economic growth, and advised that a small deal was better than no deal; he warned committee members to “not make perfect the enemy of the good.” While the conference has set Dec. 13 as the date by which to craft an agreement, the real pressure to act will be by mid-January, when the government hits its spending limit.

Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the two leaders of the conference, shared Elmendorf’s hope. “We hope that today’s meeting will keep the ball rolling,” said Ryan. “We agree that we need to step out of our partisan corners, make some compromises, and lay down a foundation for some long-term bipartisan agreements,” added Murray.

But it’s clear that their optimism is set to collide with reality. On the differences between the Democratic and Republican plans, Ryan said, “We’ve go that part down cold—that’s the easy part.”

“The hard part is where we agree.”