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Budget committee begins to air differences on spending and taxes

October 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Since 2010, Congress has operated under continuing resolutions rather than one-term budgets. As part of the solution that ended the shutdown, a bipartisan committee has begun talks to negotiate political differences on funding. Judy Woodruff and NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni discuss prospects for compromise.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s talks between lawmakers from both chambers and parties marked the group’s first formal meeting to negotiate differences on funding the government over the long term.

The conference committee was formed in the agreement ending the 16-day partial government shutdown. Today’s session served to underline that stark differences on taxes, spending and the debt remain.

For more, NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni joins me now.

Welcome again, Christina.

So, conference committees used to be a regular feature of the Congress, but not anymore. So, how did this one come about?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, what you saw in the end to the shutdown was, we want to avoid this short-term budgeting. We want to stop budgeting several weeks at a time, so let’s put in place an annual budget that’s a yearlong plan.

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Well, both chambers have passed a budget. The Senate has its plan. It’s controlled by Democrats. The House has its plan. It’s controlled by Republicans. So this is a way to get a small group of people together, in theory, to privately work out those differences and come up with a compromise.

But, as you noted, there are a lot of very stark differences. Another big difference is that you used to see people operating on these long-term one-term budgets. They have actually done 16 continuing resolutions over the last few years. They haven’t operated under a full budget since October 1, 2010. They have been operating under continuing resolutions that are just these short-term, really uncertain ways for people to find out how they are going to fund their agency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, almost three years.

Now, how — Christina, how do members line up on this? It’s not just Republicans united vs. Democrats united?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Not exactly.

There’s 29 members. It’s — you have got four House Republicans, three House Democrats, and then every member of the Senate Budget Committee, which is interesting. It’s a little lopsided to have the Senate. And it’s not really a clear divide between the Democrats. You have got some Democrats that are in favor of seeing some changes to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

You have got some liberal Democrats who are saying absolutely no changes to those things; we will fight tooth and nail against that. The Republicans are almost unanimously opposed to tax increases. They are unanimously opposed to tax increases. And that’s what you heard today.

Another thing to point out about them is that every single Republican on the committee voted for Paul Ryan’s budget. He’s the budget committee chairman. This is a budget that cuts taxes, reduces the deficit, but also makes big change to entitlement programs. The Democrats on this panel all voted for Patty Murray’s budget. She’s the budget chairman in the Senate. And that budget would raise taxes by almost a trillion dollars and looks at some other ways to cut the deficit, but not by nearly as much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, did you get any kind of — given that they’re so far apart, did you get a glimmer of what could emerge from this? As we just heard in Gwen’s interview with Senator McConnell, the Republican majority leader, there may be — he talked about maybe a tradeoff, the sequester cuts vs. something cutting entitlements.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Right.

So, what you saw — you heard a common theme today was that the sequester is crude and none of us like it, and in its second year, which is what would happen if this conference committee doesn’t work and there isn’t a long-term budget, they would be even harsher.

And so you did start to hear — I talked to some aides in both committees today that said, well, there are some things we can do, among them, looking at very small changes like things to change the way the block grant system is funded, where you’re giving communities small amounts of money for things. Even the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food stamp program we have talked about with the farm bill, that’s another area where they see some cuts.

Rather than have the sequester across-the-board cut, they’re looking at small targeted things. Now, the Democrats, of course, have pushed tax increases. And they have talked about maybe if you ended some of the corporate tax loopholes, maybe end the offshore tax havens, that might be something that Republicans could eventually get on board for.

But what you heard in the consensus was that they really want more stability in the budget process. They can’t keep doing this short-term thing. They don’t want to have another shutdown, and so everyone said, we’re hopeful. Even though we’re not — we’re pretty confident there’s not going to be a big grand bargain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Expectations going into this, Christina, are pretty low. Did they seem to — are the signals you’re getting that they really want to try to avoid failure, or what?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes.

They definitely want to try to avoid failure. Their deadline is December 13. They’re not meeting again until November 13. But what’s happening behind the scenes is that the members are meeting individually. You have got the staffs working together. They have two very detailed documents that they just have to sort of put together and find consensus on.

So it’s about the big-picture items. If they can come to an agreement, well, they have got some time. Now, the government is funded through January 15, so even if they miss that December 13 deadline, there’s possibility of some wiggle room there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, and — but they know there are consequences if they can’t come to some kind of an agreement. Spell out what the consequences are.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, the sequester kicking in into its second year, these more harsh cuts to — across-the-board military spending. Every agency has already seen a cut.

There was some flexibility in agencies the first year, because they could use money from the year before. This is now the harsh, intense cut, is what everyone was trying. And then you also have the flexibility of the debt ceiling, because they have until February 7 for that to hit again. It’s possible they could extend it further, do a short-term extension, but people don’t want to do that.

Every single lawmaker on this committee said, this is not what we want to see again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we just heard Senator McConnell say he doesn’t — he doesn’t intend to see not only a shutdown of the government, but a breach of the debt ceiling.

So you’re saying that you do hear glimmers that maybe they can pull this off, despite every — all the forces working against them?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Right.

And the Democrats, they have been talking quite a bit about the fact that the deficit, as we reported earlier, that the deficit is coming down. It’s under a trillion for the first time. And you are going to hear them talk a lot about that. Well, we have been able to do smart budgeting. It had a fast decline. It’s the fastest rate going down since the end of World War II.

And the Republicans are saying, well, OK, let’s keep talking about and that and let’s figure out where we can come to some sort of agreement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christina Bellantoni, our political editor, thank you.