Murray in Slow Burn over GOP Refusal to Negotiate
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The Fiscal Times
June 19, 2013

This has been a long, frustrating patch for Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray in her maiden effort to write the budget blueprint that would set federal spending and tax priorities for the coming year.

After drafting a Democratic budget last March that sailed through her committee and the full Senate for the first time in nearly four years, Murray has been doing a slow burn. That’s because  her counterpart in the House, Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and other House GOP leaders  have repeatedly rebuked her efforts to draw them to the bargaining table to iron out a compromise plan.

The House-passed plan vows to wipe out the deficit in ten years, but it is premised on the assumption that Congress will eventually repeal President Obama’s health care reform law and impose dramatic cuts in health care services for the poor.

Meanwhile, the Senate-approved budget drafted by Murray is counting on $1 trillion of additional taxes for deficit reduction that Republicans have taken the equivalent of a blood-oath to oppose. Also, their budget does not balance in the standard 10-year window, a big talking point for GOP critics.

“My biggest concern is that we’re being dragged by the Republicans into a nightmare scenario this fall, between our two budget allocations and the Republicans’ insistence that the debt ceiling be tied to this,” Murray told The Fiscal Times on Tuesday. “People in this country want certainty; they want us to be responsible; they want us to come to a solution.”

“I have been asking time and time again to go to conference so that we can give them that certainty,” she added. “The insistence that we don’t go to conference is dragging us into another economic calamity this fall.

“And yeah, it makes me angry,” she added.

Murray, 62, has been nothing if not tenacious since coming to the Senate in 1992.

But now she’s stuck, unable to move toward some version of a “Grand Bargain” because Republicans refuse to play ball.  More than a dozen times, Senate Republicans have blocked her from appointing budget negotiators to meet with the House.  And House Republicans have blocked a comparable effort by Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, to name budget negotiators.

Many congressional Republicans have no interest in negotiating a final budget deal that might include another tax hike, or raising the debt ceiling without sufficient offsetting spending cuts. For Murray, it’s the political equivalent of anxiously awaiting an invitation to a party that never arrives.

Murray repeatedly harkens back to brutal debt ceiling talks between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans in the summer of 2011 that came close to triggering the first government default on its debt in history. President Obama has vowed never again to negotiate the terms of a new debt ceiling, but that may prove to be bluster as the next absolute deadline for boosting the Treasury’s borrowing authority rolls around in early September.

“There is no reason for elected members of Congress to drag us to that point again,” Murray said in an interview. “We go to conference and work out our agreement. I’m not going to like everything, Paul Ryan is not going to like everything . . . But this is a democracy and that’s how you solve problems.”

“So yes, I’m frustrated,” she said.

The irony, of course, is that for years, Republicans mocked the Democrats on the budget:  While the House routinely passed annual budget resolutions, the Democratic-controlled Senate did not. Boehner and other GOP leaders taunted the Democrats for their irresponsibility and disregard for “regular order.” House Republicans were so cocky they passed a bill in January, extending the debt ceiling for several months, but also daring Senate Democrats to agree to forego their pay until they passed a budget of their own.

Murray eagerly took up the challenge, and displayed iron discipline in pushing through a $3.6 trillion budget blueprint – one that was vastly different in priorities and spending levels than the House-passed budget.

Since then, Ryan and Boehner have fended off repeated Democratic calls for the two sides to meet. Boehner, for example, insisted Ryan and Murray meet informally to try to develop a “framework” for a final deal, saying this would be in the true spirit of “regular order” in Congress. The House and Senate budget chiefs met a half-dozen times, but the last meeting was May 21 and there is no sign they will meet again.

Then, last week, Ryan wrote an opinion piece for The Hill, urging House appropriators to move swiftly to pass the 12 annual spending bills for the coming fiscal year based on the stringent allocations dictated by the House Republican budget that was passed in March.

It was an extraordinary insult to Murray. Ryan made no reference to the Senate Democratic budget or the need to work out a compromise. 

“The appropriations bills will both put our priorities into law and abide by our budget’s limits,” Ryan wrote along with Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA).  Asked whether she was offended and angered by Ryan’s dismissive comments, Murray replied, “Absolutely, absolutely.”

The Republicans’ new game plan is clear: They want to scrap budget talks and focus instead on passing the annual spending bills. Assuming the Senate eventually follows suit, the real bargaining will begin at the appropriations committee level later this summer, as the government inches closer to the Sept. 30 deadline. Without the new spending bills in place or a continuing resolution, the government would begin to shut down.

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said yesterday he agrees that would be the proper course at this late date. “We would be far better off working towards that goal as opposed to trying to do something [on the budget] that’s not going to happen,” he told The Fiscal Times.

But other senior Republicans, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, believe their party must keep its pledge to negotiate out differences in the two budgets.

Coburn told The Fiscal Times that if the Republicans refuse to negotiate after complaining for years about the process, “You lose your moral credibility.”

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.