South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and others confirmed that discussions of a grand bargain fiscal deal are 'on hold.' (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Senior Republican US senators say talks with the White House about a sequester-addressing fiscal deal have broken down, and they say any future talks must include Democratic members.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was the first among a group of GOP senators with whom senior White House officials had been talking all summer about a “grand bargain” fiscal deal to reveal those talks had stalled. Corker told reporters the White House has lost credibility with Republican senators on several issues, including pursuit of a big fiscal deal.
“I don’t think there’s one of the eight senators who participated in those [grand bargain] meetings who feels like they were being credible on what they were doing,” Corker said. “The way it ended, the way they portrayed it to Democratic senators” was inaccurate, he added.
Several participants confirmed efforts with the White House to strike a deal that lessens or voids sequestration have been scuttled, and signs of hope for a Pentagon and defense sector eager to avoid more cuts to planned military spending began to recede.
One of them, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters last week the talks “are certainly on hold.”
Such a big fiscal deal has proven elusive for several years. Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on the contents of a grand bargain. The former wants more federal spending cuts and deep cuts to domestic entitlement programs; the latter wants some spending cuts, new tax revenues on wealthy earners and to mostly protect entitlement programs.
“If you talk to the White House, they would say we were not serious enough about some aspects of it,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said during a brief interview. “And we’d say they weren’t serious enough about changes to entitlements.
GOP senators also became frustrated with the White House’s approach, telling Defense News that administration officials were focused on short-term fixes.
“I think something that would help is more urgency on the debt,” McCain said. “One of the factors was this reduction in the debt to get some short-term relief, but long-term, it was still the same.”
A White House official referred a reporter to comments President Barack Obama made Sept. 18 before the Business Roundtable.
“I have presented a budget that deals with — continues to deal with — our deficit effectively. I am prepared to work with Democrats and Republicans to deal with our long-term entitlement issues,” Obama said. “And I am prepared to look at priorities that the Republicans think we should be promoting and priorities that they think ... we shouldn’t be promoting.”
One major difference in this latest try: senior officials such as White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Deputy White House Chief of Staff for Policy Rob Nabors and Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Matthews Burwell negotiated solely with GOP senators.
The White House and Senate leaders need a dozen or so Republicans to vote with Democrats in order for the upper chamber to pass a grand bargain bill and create pressure on the Republican-controlled House to do the same.
That strategy failed, and some participants say it’s time to try the old strategy. Again.
“There weren’t any Democrats in the room. And because you’ve got the unspoken side — suppose we had reached an agreement, and the Democrats had rejected,” McCain said. “I think it might have been somewhat flawed from the beginning.”
Democrats said that including members of their caucus should improve prospects for a fiscal deal.
“I think there needs to be collaboration, rather it’s physically in the room or another way,” said Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Collaboration is always good.”
Blumenthal said he remains “very hopeful” a deal that addresses sequestration will be reached.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., agreed, describing tactics a baseball manager might use in search of a spark for his ballclub: Try one lineup, then another, then another until one clicks.
“I think we’ve got to try any different combination, variety, approach — we’ve got to try everything we can to replace sequestration,” Levin told Defense News, throwing his hat into the ring as a candidate for the Democratic delegation. “Anything that might work, I’m willing to support or participate.”
Asked if he believes there are other members of his caucus who would be well-suited for the job, Levin replied: “There are. But I wouldn’t dare name them.”
Democrats from states with a large defense-sector presence are eager to find a way to turn off the next round of cuts to planned defense spending.
That will require White House officials to meet with Republicans and Democrats.
“I think you’ve got to be in the room. I think you’ve got to have a group and got to be talking,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “I think we’re wasting incredibly important time by not sitting down and trying to work things out.”
Re-starting the grand bargain talks could prove tricky, however. That’s because lawmakers are set to battle in coming weeks over a government shutdown, raising the nation’s borrowing limit and Obama’s health care law.
“This year the biggest complication is that the budget fight isn’t really about the budget: It’s about Obamacare, and that makes it hard to see what kind of arrangement will garner enough votes to avoid the kind of shutdown and debt ceiling disasters that have been only narrowly averted the past few years,” said federal budget expert Stan Collender.
“What happens when, like now, the budget is the legislative vehicle but the real debate is over something else entirely?” Collender wrote on his popular blog. “When that happens, there is no number that will satisfy everyone in the debate and the budget process — which is designed to compromise numbers rather than policy — becomes an incredibly ineffective way to negotiate.”