Budget Talks Could Be More Like the Hunger Games This Time Around
Policy + Politics

Budget Talks Could Be More Like the Hunger Games This Time Around

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Whether Republicans and Democrats come together and craft a budget compromise that staves off potentially devastating federal spending cuts remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: the talks will require greater buy-in from leadership and prove much trickier than just two years ago.

In 2013, Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and her House counterpart, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), held extended talks that yielded a deal to lift the budget caps for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

The agreement was palatable to both parties because of the heft of the negotiators. Murray was a respected member of the Senate Democratic leadership team and Ryan was the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee who possessed tremendous leeway with Republican leaders and his rank-and-file colleagues.

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With their deal set to expire in fiscal 2016, both Murray and Ryan have since moved on to leadership roles on different panels. And with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, Democrats don’t want to be on the outside looking in.

The new landscape means that party leadership will have to step in and hammer out a pact and lawmakers who would usually lead such talks will be relegated to the backseat, experts say.

“Really, at the end of the day, it’s the leadership,” according to Todd Harrison, Senior Fellow for Defense Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

It will come down to what kind of bargain Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) “are ready to give” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), he said.

“This is too big of an issue to handle at the committee level,” Harrison said, adding that members or at least staffs from the congressional appropriations and budget panels will likely be present since they “know the mechanics of what kind of deal they can work.”

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If talks are “kicked up to a different level,” that carries its own dangers given the “pretty poisonous” relationship between House and Senate GOP leaders, according to Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He cited the recent fight over the highway bill where Boehner described the Senate’s six-year version of the measure as a “piece of s---.”

Ornstein predicted any budget deal would need significant support from Democrats and that’s where negotiations run into another complicating factor: the 2016 elections.

On the Democratic side, Senate Budget Committee ranking member Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is running a fiercely populist campaign for president and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (MD), the top Democrat on the House Budget panel, is seeking a Senate seat.  Both could use any budget discussions as platform to score political points with the party’s liberal base.

Meanwhile, four GOP senators, each with the power to hold up a compromise, are running for the White House. Conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who spearheaded the brief 2013 shutdown and has urged GOP leaders to do so again this year over federal funding for Planned Parenthood, will likely hammer away at any talks both on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail.

Boehner and others will have to mold legislation that can get by a Senate filibuster at the same time Cruz and others are “appealing to the most radical wing of their party” who would be “unhappy” about Republicans teaming with Democrats, according to Ornstein.

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Indeed, looming over any potential negotiations that might happen in the coming months is what kind of deal lawmakers will be able to strike.

Harrison predicted Senate Republicans would first try to bring must-pass spending bills to the floor, a move Democrats have blocked because of a $38 billion increase to the Defense Department’s war fund that allows the Pentagon, but no other federal agency, to skirt the returning budget caps.

Once it becomes clear the GOP can’t overcome the filibuster, Republicans might give in and agree to the “budget summit” Democrats have clamored for and work toward a two-year deal, he said.

Such a compromise “gets them through the rest of this president’s term, gets them past the election and into a new administration and Congress. They can renegotiate from there,” according to Harrison.

Ornstein took a more pessimistic view, speculating that lawmakers would come up with a one-year continuing resolution because Republicans have already vowed not to raise new revenues, a sticking point for Democrats.

Harrison said that despite the budget fever that might come to grip Washington in September, a solution probably won’t be reached until closer to the end of calendar year, after Congress has passed a short-term continuing resolution that gives them more breathing room.

Still, “it probably is a good sign if we see the leadership getting involved and sanctioning these negotiations sooner rather than later,” he said.