WASHINGTON: Top negotiators on the budget maintained a conciliatory tone and promised Wednesday to genuinely try to find agreement to spare both the Pentagon and domestic agencies from automatic, indiscriminate spending cuts that are the price for Washington’s repeated failures to strike a fiscal accord.
Members of the official House-Senate negotiating committee may have struck the right notes, but as soon as the session began a familiar rift opened over taxes, with the top GOP negotiator taking a firm stance against using tax revenues to ease the automatic cuts known as sequestration.
“I want to say this from the get-go: If this conference becomes an argument about taxes, we’re not going to get anywhere,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The chief protagonists had already signaled that the idea of a “grand bargain” blending hundreds of billions of dollars in new tax revenues and politically painful savings from fundamental restructuring of expensive benefit programs is highly unlikely.
Instead, their efforts are focused on a smaller deal to smooth the rough edges of the automatic cuts.
The cuts are the consequence of Washington’s failure to strike a follow-up budget pact to a 2011 agreement to cut agency budgets.
The threat of the cuts was intended to force the 2011 deficit “supercommittee” to reach an agreement but the panel failed to do so.
The administration Wednesday reported that the deficit for the 2013 budget year, which ended on Sept. 30, registered $680 billion, a drop of more than $400 billion from 2012 and half the size of the deficit in 2009, Obama’s first year in office.
Wednesday’s talks represent a brief cease-fire in a long-running battle over deficits, spending and taxes between Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate and Republicans leading the House, including the recent federal government shutdown.
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, have yielded the limelight to lieutenants such as Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“We won’t resolve all our differences here. We won’t solve all our problems,” Ryan said. “But we can make a good start.”
Murray said she’s willing to consider longer-term cuts to autopilot-like “mandatory” spending on certain benefit programs in order to ease immediate across-the-board cuts to agency operating budgets. But she insists Republicans put revenue into the mix, too.
“I’m ready to make some tough concessions to get a deal,” Murray said.
“But compromise runs both ways. While we scour programs to find responsible savings, Republicans are also going to have to work with us to scour the bloated tax code — and close some wasteful tax loopholes and special interest subsidies.”