Members of the bipartisan budget conference (left to right) Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen D-Md., discuss their initial meeting at the US Capitol Oct. 17. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Members of a House-Senate committee charged with mapping a long-term fiscal plan spent nearly three hours Wednesday reading prepared statements, offering amorphous ideas and largely doubling down on their party’s budgetary stances.
The panel’s first public session toward its two-part charge — crafting a 2014 budget resolution that can pass both chambers, and a longer-term spending blueprint — was almost entirely choreographed. And little progress toward stated goals like trying to replace the remaining defense and domestic sequestration cuts appeared to be achieved.
Members from both chambers abandoned the leather chairs and ornate daises of their typical hearing rooms, instead sitting in plastic chairs around folding tables draped in white cloths in a makeshift hearing room inside the Capitol. The rather surreal setup is what constitutes a neutral site these days amid Washington’s bitter partisan environment.
The session ended with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., who oversaw Wednesday’s proceedings, noting the special panel that has received so much media attention since its creation two weeks ago will not meet again until Nov. 13. That’s because the House is scheduled to recess for two weeks, meaning little significant progress is likely with members’ attention on town hall meetings and fundraisers back home.
The scripted session featured all the familiar elements of the budget bargaining banter that has led Washington from crisis to crisis since 2010. Most Republicans and Democrats on the special panel agreed the way they achieved $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction in August 2010 — by setting up the sequester cuts — is bad policy because officials have little control over what gets cut.
Members from both sides spent ample time calling on their political foes to accept cuts and other measures to which they are strongly opposed — while digging in on their own favored deficit-cutting ideas.
And there were the usual calls for compromise and giving a little. Democratic House Budget Committee member Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina reminded his colleagues that “a deal means everybody gives something up.”
And Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., continued his public efforts to set a rather low bar for the House-Senate panel’s work. The veteran lawmaker said his hope is simple, that the conferees can agree on “some steps” — not a sweeping plan — to improve the nation’s fiscal picture.
Sessions also made comments that underscored how tough it might be for the conference panel to come up with anything meaningful on which both parties might agree.
Sessions, as other GOP members did, suggested he would rather keep sequestration in place than accept a plan that produced less tangible deficit-reduction items.
“This is the tough year,” Sessions said of the first wave of across-the-board cuts to non-exempt accounts. Even if the sequestration remains, “there will be growth” in federal spending for the remaining years of sequestration, he said.
Sessions also took a political swipe at his Democratic conference mates, saying that party has “a spending agenda” that would only add to federal deficits in the long run.
For their part, panel Democrats noted even the GOP-run House failed to pass a 2014 appropriations bill at post-sequester levels.
And Clyburn called for the special panel to adopt the kind of long-range fiscal plan built around a “balanced approach,” Democrat-speak for some spending cuts, new tax revenue and tinkering a bit with domestic programs.
That is the kind of approach that Republicans have rejected for three years. The resulting impasse helped create a 2011 fiscal crisis that spawned sequestration.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pushed the idea of closing offshore tax loopholes as a way to address sequestration, an idea members of both parties have endorsed in recent months.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., one of Capitol Hill’s last remaining moderates, said closing offshore tax havens could help close a “$90 billion difference” between the House and Senate budget resolutions — and help get a big fiscal deal.
But Wyden also distanced himself from conference committee defense hawks like GOP Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, saying, as his office summarized in a tweet: “We should not bail out the Defense Dept while continuing to slash vital domestic program[s].”
Liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., also went after the Pentagon budget, saying: “We’re not fighting the Soviet Union, we’re fighting al-Qaida.” His implication is the annual defense budget is too large for a nation fighting a loosely affiliated network of individuals who use crude weapons, explosive devices and mobile phones as their primary tools of war.
But Graham, who spoke next, pushed back.
The second-ranking of the Senate’s “Three Amigos” said sequestration is about to break the military. Graham also said additional DoD cuts would be dangerous given the long list of threats America is facing. He then ticked off a few: Iran’s nuclear program, al-Qaida, and the instability in Syria.
But Wednesday’s remarks made clear Graham and Ayotte are more aligned with Democrats on getting rid of the defense sequestration cuts.
Clyburn, for instance, said the cuts are killing jobs across the nation. And House Budget Committee Ranking Member Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said when coupled with the domestic sequester cuts, 800,000 jobs might be lost.
Enter GOP fiscal hawks, like Sessions, and Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
Grassley said he is “cautious about” any Democratic plan to replace the sequestration cuts with amorphous changes to domestic entitlement programs or blank promises of such moves to be filled in later.
And Wicker said of sequestration, if a Democratic alternative fails to meet his standards, “I can live with it.”
But in a potentially telling remark, House GOP Deputy Whip Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma — who this month has endorsed keeping sequestration shy of a GOP-endorsed plan to replace it — offered the Democrats and GOP hawks some hope by saying the conferees should try to get rid of the “damaging and senseless” sequester cuts.