Mikulski (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The US Senate’s top appropriator wants Congress and the White House to pursue a fiscal deal that would put off the next two years of across-the-board defense and domestic spending cuts.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, supports on-again, off-again talks between a select number of senators and senior White House officials. But Mikulski is warning that finding agreement on tax rates and domestic entitlement program reforms could — again — prove too difficult.
GOP senators and White House officials have begun fragile talks toward a $1 trillion “grand bargain” fiscal deal, the kind of package needed to lessen or replace twin $450 billion cuts to planned national defense and domestic spending. But, lawmakers tell Defense News, while progress has been made, the sides remain far apart on key issues.
Mikulski wants the two sides to consider what’s known on Capitol Hill and among Washington budget analysts as a “mini bargain.”
The upper chamber’s top appropriator took her plea public during a July 30 Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee hearing, noting she is “all for” a long-term grand bargain.
But, Mikulski said to her committee colleagues, a short-term deal might be a temporary answer that would create two more years for President Barack Obama, his top aides, and congressional Republicans to finally bridge their many policy and spending chasms.
Mikulski’s envisioned mini bargain plan would replace or simply delay the across-the-board sequestration cuts in fiscal 2014 and 2015.
“While I’m for a [long-term] bargain,” Mikulski said, “I’m also for a bargain real quick.”
She said many House members “assume sequester is the new normal,” adding, “I don’t do that.”
The Appropriations Committee chief has a big stake in addressing both the defense and domestic sequestration cuts. Maryland has a large military and defense industry presence. And Mikulski is an advocate for domestic programs such as those run by the National Institutes of Health, based in Bethesda, Md.
“By saying ‘no’ to draconian sequester cuts, we are investing in research and innovation that leads to cures and treatments leading to new products and jobs,” Mikulski said in a July 11 statement. “I will continue to stand sentry against the slash of reckless cuts to American biomedical research.”
While GOP senators participating in the talks say Mikulski’s idea has merit, they insist only a long-term fiscal deal will do.
Asked by Defense News whether the GOP-White House talks should pivot to a “mini-bargain” this fall if a bigger agreement becomes unreachable, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., replied: “No. We have to go big.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a key player in the fiscal talks with the White House, said a small deal has yet to come up.
“I think the gimmick period is over, and people are having serious discussions about how to go forward,” Corker said. “I don’t think a gimmick like that is going to be [feasible].
“I don’t say that with any lack of respect,” he added. “I’ve just been involved in a lot of meetings and discussions, and I don’t think that’s something that’s going to get a lot of traction.”
Senate Republicans not involved in the talks, but whose votes on any fiscal deal will be key to its passage in the upper chamber, also said just before leaving for recess they prefer a grand bargain.
Washington insiders also have doubts about the prospect of a mini bargain.
Stan Collender, a longtime Washington budget analyst, said the odds are long for any deal this fall — grand or mini.
“When you add the somehow-still-increasingly-intractable budget politics to the mix, the odds of being right about what’s going to happen get even longer, unless you’re suggesting something close to fiscal chaos,” Collender wrote recently on his blog.
Collender said he believes there is “no way” a big deal is possible “before the next election, a year from this November.”
But how about the kind of two-year deal Mikulski is pitching?
“Even a mini bargain ... won’t fly in the House of Representatives,” Collender said. “Here’s a secret: It’s not likely to fly in the Senate, either.”