WASHINGTON — As the congressional effort to reach a federal budget agreement kicked off Wednesday, it was clear there may be only one thing lawmakers agree on: They have a tough job ahead of them.
During its first public meeting, the budget-conference committee led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, and including Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, ticked through platitudes about working across party lines but then cited a litany of partisan talking points.
Republicans focused on stemming crushing deficits and mounting debt through spending cuts and entitlement reforms, while Democrats pushed federal spending on infrastructure, research and education while preserving entitlement benefits in Medicare and Medicaid.
Both sides say they want to overhaul taxes but they are at extreme odds over how they should be overhauled. And in any case, Ryan immediately swept the issue off the table.
“I want to say this from the get-go: If this conference becomes an argument about taxes, we’re not going to get anywhere,” he said.
Congress set a deadline for the committee of Dec. 13 to come up with an agreement. If it fails, the country could face another government shutdown when it runs out of money Jan. 15. And it could smack up against the debt limit again on Feb. 7, risking default.
On its face, the mission of the committee appears simple: Reconcile the federal budget passed by the GOP-controlled House with the one passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate. But the differences between the two are immense and reflect the gaping division that has gummed up Washington for years.
The Senate budget includes nearly $1 trillion in new tax revenue and $100 billion in spending on infrastructure, while preserving entitlement programs, including Obamacare.
The House budget reduces corporate and individual tax rates while making significant changes to entitlement programs. Medicaid would be changed to a capped grant program to the states and Medicare overhauled to allow for vouchers to subsidize private insurance premiums. Notably, the House budget assumes Obamacare will be repealed and doesn’t fund the law’s expansion of Medicaid.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Ryan, who passed the plan as chairman of the House Budget Committee, said at the conference meeting. “It’s not going to be easy.”
He and Johnson argued that absent reforms, Medicare and Social Security will send the debt skyrocketing even further with 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day. And they maintained that raising taxes to pay for the benefits would impede economic growth.
“Republicans want to increase revenues of the federal government, we agree with that goal. We just want to do it the old-fashioned way by growing our economy,” Johnson said. “Growing your economy is far more effective than punishing success.”
Baldwin argued that government investment in key areas like infrastructure and job training will grow the economy. She said the Senate Democratic budget includes cuts as well as new tax revenues and asserted that any budget agreement needs to have such a “balanced approach.”
She said after the meeting that she was encouraged that many attendees said they didn’t want another government shutdown or risk of default. She also was pleased that they wanted to reach a deal that would fund the government through next fall, rather than just for a few months as has been the recent practice. As for whether the committee would be successful in reaching that agreement, she said the odds are “good.”
“I’m not a gambling woman,” she said in an interview. “But I’d say the odds are good.”
Johnson said he was also encouraged, although he doesn’t expect any kind of grand long-term budget bargain.
“This isn’t going to be solved by a 90-yard Hail Mary pass, this is more like 3˝ yards and a cloud of dust,” he said in an interview. “So let’s get that 3˝ yards and a cloud of dust, let’s make that achievement, let’s take an initial first step.”
— Contact Donovan Slack at firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @donovanslack