Just 90 days away from the next budget showdown, congressional lawmakers were back at work early Thursday, initiating talks on a long-term budget deal they hope will end the gridlock and their crisis-driven management of the federal budget.
The bipartisan group of four budget conference leaders sat down to breakfast in the Capitol to open negotiations and invited reporters in after the meeting to talk about their plans.
"We just want to say that the four of us … had a very good conversation," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who will lead the efforts for House Republicans. "We decided to discuss how we're going to proceed over breakfast. We want to look for ways to find common ground to get a budget agreement."
It won't be easy. The two sides, who until Dec. 13 to strike a deal and are far apart on fundamental issues, like how much the government should be spending. Republicans want to preserve the $988 billion annual budget cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act. They also want to begin the complicated work of reforming entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security and to rewrite parts of the tax code. Democrats hope to raise spending to about $1.05 trillion, in part through tax increases.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the top GOP negotiator from the Senate, acknowledged the huge divides that need to be bridged.
"We don't want to raise expectations above reality, but I think there are some things we could do," Sessions said.
Despite the divide between the two sides, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, the top Democratic negotiator from the Senate, was optimistic.
"We believe there is common ground in showing the American people that as a Congress, we can work and make sure that our economy is growing and that people are back to work and that we can do the job that we were sent here to do — to find common ground between our two budget resolutions and set a path forward for Congress to work on," she said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the top House Democrat on the panel, acknowledged that past efforts to forge a budget deal failed miserably, and he didn't promise success this time around.
"What we can say is that if we don't make the effort and get together and talk, that would guarantee failure," he said.
Critical deadlines could help motivate lawmakers to reach a deal. The final compromise to end a 16-day government shutdown and raise the nation's debt ceiling, passed Wednesday night, gives lawmakers until Jan. 15 to devise a long-term budget. It also gives them until Feb. 7 to strike another deal to raise the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling.
Automatic budget cuts will be implemented after Jan. 15 if lawmakers fail to reach a deal that would stop or alter the reductions.
And without a budget deal, the threat of another showdown over government spending and raising the borrowing limit is almost guaranteed.
Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, and Murray said that despite past failures, the two sides still hoped to find middle ground this time.
"I want to have a budget agreement that gets this debt and deficit under control, that does right by future generations and helps us grow the economy," Ryan said. "And we're going to try and figure out if we can find an agreement to do that."