WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans are blocking negotiations over a 2014 federal budget agreement because they fear it might result in further tax increases and a hike in the federal debt ceiling.
House Republicans have stalled making appointments to a budget conference committee which would be charged with developing a spending plan with conferees from the Senate. Republicans in the upper chamber, meanwhile, are blocking efforts by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, to make conference committee appointments. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, has objected to making the selections four times and counting.
The delaying tactics are ironic since congressional Republicans have criticized Senate Democrats for failing to adopt a budget proposal at any time over the past four years. Now that Democrats have finally put one on the table, GOPs are looking to avoid the negotiations that theoretically could result in a final package.
The differences between the House budget plan, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee and last year’s GOP nominee for vice president, and the Senate package offered by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, are as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. It’s unlikely face-to-face talks will result in a 2014 spending plan.
But Reid maintains any chance of an agreement is impossible without a conference committee.
“We have a budget resolution we passed in the Senate,” Reid said. “We want to meet with the House and work out our differences. That is what we have done here for two centuries. We should do it on this bill.”
Republicans, Reid said, have demanded that the budget be developed through “regular order” – passed by committee, run through the amendment process, and finally passed on the Senate floor. Now that the legislation has been adopted in that manner, the GOP is standing in its way.
“For two years my Republican colleagues have said they wish for a return to regular order,” Reid said. “They asked for amendments and they got amendments. They asked for consideration of bills out of committees and they have gotten that. They asked and then asked again for the Senate to pass a budget resolution, even though we already had a budget law signed by President Obama. Well, they got what they wished — the dog finally caught the car. But it turns out Republicans were more interested in demagogy by calling for regular order than actually operating under regular order.”
Senate Republicans insist they won’t permit the majority to proceed to a conference unless it agrees to prohibit the panel from negotiating for any increase in taxes. The spending package adopted by the upper chamber in April raises taxes, primarily by removing tax breaks directed at wealthy Americans, by about $1 trillion.
The House proposal does not contain any tax hike.
McConnell is demanding that Senate Democrats modify their request to appoint a conference committee “so that it not be in order for the Senate to consider a conference report that includes tax increases or reconciliation instructions to increase taxes or raise the debt ceiling.”
House and Senate Republicans are holding a vote on increasing the nation’s debt limit as a possible ace in the hole. They have used the Treasury’s request to raise the ceiling as a negotiating ploy before and GOP lawmakers are looking to do so again in an effort to slash the nation’s budget deficit.
But several factors — an increase in tax revenues, a suddenly growing economy, the sequester implementing across-the-board budget cuts and a decline in the growth of healthcare costs — mean the opportunity to re-address the debt limit probably won’t arrive until October, if then — instead of August. By that time the fiscal year will have started.
Nonetheless, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wants to prohibit any conference committee from addressing the issue.
“One of my concerns is that this conference report could be used to pass a reconciliation bill that would increase the debt ceiling without sufficient input from the minority party and without addressing the fundamental structural spending problems we have in the federal government that are leading to our unsustainable debt,” Cruz said. “I believe this concern is well founded in history in that reconciliation bills have been used to increase the debt ceiling at least three times — in 1986, 1990, and in 1993.”
But Murray said the inability of Congress to hammer out any spending plan is creating national uncertainty.
“And we know that in order to solve this huge problem we have to come to a table and compromise and listen to the other side,” Murray said. “We can’t do it in the dead of night, we can’t do it with a couple people sitting in a room, that’s been done before and it doesn’t work. We need to have regular order and we need to have this process out in the open, we need the American people to hear what the different sides say and then we’re all going to have to take some tough votes.”
On the House side, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he wants Ryan and Murray to work out ground rules and the parameters for negotiations before appointing a conference committee.
Boehner also said he is approaching the issue cautiously to avoid politically motivated amendments from cropping up on the floor of the lower chamber to embarrass Republicans.
“Under rules, if you appoint conferees and after 20 legislative days there’s no agreement, the minority has the right to offer motions to instruct, which become politically motivated bombs to throw up on the House floor,” Boehner said. “So to be frank with all of you, we’re following what I would describe as regular order. These informal conversations are underway and that’s the way it should be.”
But House Democrats are demanding a quicker pace. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), ranking member on the House Budget Committee, has sponsored a resolution urging Boehner to proceed with the appointments.
“Congressional Republicans were quick to criticize the Senate and the President for standing in the way of a timely budget process – but they are now the only ones standing in the way,” Van Hollen said. “Despite the fact that Congress has missed its legal deadline of passing a final budget, the GOP won’t even take the first step and appoint budget conferees.”
The foot-dragging comes after congressional Republicans supported an effort to prohibit members of Congress from getting paid unless each chamber passed a budget.
“There is no time for delay,” he said. “We must move forward immediately with a budget conference committee to work out our differences, boost job growth and get our fiscal house in order.”
But speaking at a recent forum, Ryan indicated Republicans are in no hurry.
“We don’t want to go to conference just for the sake of going to conference,” he said.