The House and Senate budget conference commenced Wednesday morning, with 29 legislators convening to negotiate a federal budget.
Any budget deal would likely limit or end the cuts in discretionary spending mandated by sequestration. Reaching a deal for the remainder of the fiscal year would also prevent another government shutdown.
The committee of 15 Democrats and 14 Republicans has six weeks to negotiate and pass a budget. Many lawmakers expect the worst.
Committee member Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) admitted that the process will be “hard.”
“There hasn’t been a divided Congress budget conference since 1986, so this is not something that’s just natural,” Kaine said.
The conference committee – led by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) – will have to overcome deep partisan rifts among the lawmakers if it hopes to reach a deal by the December 13 deadline. In his opening remarks, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) said the “only thing that could derail a bipartisan agreement is excessive partisanship and rigid ideologies.”
He did, however, acknowledge the $90 billion difference between the House and Senate budgets — another obstacle the committee will have to overcome.
Senator Murray proposed a 2014 budget that would leave federal-employee retirement contributions unchanged, but would adjust contractor compensation to achieve significant savings. The plan also includes fully replacing the “harmful cuts from sequestration.”
Rep. Ryan proposed a budget that would increase contributions made by federal employees toward their retirement plans by 5.5 percent of their salaries. The proposed budget would also eliminate special supplemental payments to certain federal employees who retire before the age of 63. Ryan claims his bill would save an estimated $132 billion over 10 years.
President Barack Obama’s own proposal calls for an increase in retirement contributions and an end to supplemental retirement payments for future federal employees. His plan, however, would increase the employee portion by 1.2 percent, and would save an estimated $20 billion over 20 years.
Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) both warn against a sweeping resolution, citing differences that won’t lead to a “grand bargain” in the near future.
Despite these low expectations, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), a key member of the committee, is slightly more optimistic. “There’s enormous pressure on everybody in Congress,” he said, adding that the “American people are fed up with dysfunction.”