WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats and Republicans meeting Wednesday to hash out their first semblance of a normal budget in years got a fresh reminder of why it’s been so long: Their disagreements on tax and spending run deep.
The opening negotiating session on a budget agreement — led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — signaled the two parties likely will steer clear of grand compromises and focus instead on simply getting the government funded through the 2014 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Ryan set the tone with his prepared remarks, in which he noted the sharp rise in the federal debt in recent years and the increasing cost of sustaining Medicare and Social Security.
He also declared any tax increases a nonstarter.
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“If this conference becomes an argument about taxes, we’re not going to get anywhere,” said Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
At the same time, he called for smarter ways to cut spending and for revising the tax code to eliminate special breaks that stifle economic growth.
Those objectives in theory mirror the Democrats’ priorities to replace the arbitrary budget ax known as sequestration with targeted spending cuts, and to raise revenue by closing tax loopholes for businesses and better-off Americans.
Murray said that despite the parties’ stark differences in priorities, Democrats are prepared to negotiate in earnest.
“I am going into this budget conference ready to agree to some tough spending cuts,” said Murray, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee. “But compromise runs both ways.”
Creation of the budget conference committee was part of the deal that raised the debt ceiling and reopened the government this month after a battle over the Affordable Care Act and federal spending.
The House and Senate haven’t passed a budget conference agreement since 2009.
The parties are trying to reconcile competing blueprints for the fiscal 2014 budget. Without an accord, the two budgets will stand $91 billion apart in January, about a 10 percent difference.
Murray’s proposed budget for discretionary programs, passed by the Senate in March, calls for raising $1 trillion in new revenue over 10 years by closing unspecified tax loopholes.
Ryan’s House budget by contrast would lower the top income-tax rate to 25 percent from 39.6 percent.
It also proposes to turn Medicare from a government-run insurance program into a private coverage plan paid for with fixed public vouchers.
Some Republicans argued the nation’s economic ills are primarily caused by too much public spending, and suggested further budget cuts might not be bad.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., called it “vital” to preserve the deficit reductions achieved under the 2011 Budget Control Act, which slows federal spending by more than $2 trillion over a decade.
The more federal government spending is reined in, Toomey said, the more the nation will enjoy “prosperity, more job growth and a higher standard of living.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, also urged more spending cuts.
Several Democrats said any budget cuts should not touch benefits for those on Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs.
But one Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, said he was willing to look for ways to reduce Medicare costs.
The AARP and other seniors advocacy groups have renewed their warnings to Congress not to trim benefits through lower inflation adjustments, raising the eligibility age or other changes.
The conference committee’s 29 members — 15 of them Democrats and 22 of them from the Senate Budget Committee — did agree on one thing.
They said they wanted to avoid another crisis by reaching an accord before the current stopgap spending bill expires Jan. 15, after which the government could be shuttered again.
The negotiators will not meet again publicly until Nov. 13. Their deadline for an agreement is Dec. 13.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KyungMSong