Budget deal on life support as optimism fades

Speaker of the House John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Roger Wollenberg/Getty Images

Less than two months ago, Democrats and Republicans in Congress were uncharacteristically confident about the prospects of passing a full-year budget plan: Over the course of a few weeks, both parties passed their own budget proposals, complete with amendments, and swiftly went to work writing up the bills and gearing up for negotiations. Senators and House members were cautiously optimistic that, despite years of bitter partisanship in Congress, something could be worked out.

In the 40-plus days since both sides passed their respective bills, however, the hopes for a comprehensive budget package have all but collapsed.

"It's not dead, but it's not looking nearly as favorable as we might have thought a month or two ago," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert and American Enterprise Institute scholar, in an interview with CBSNews.com.

In recent weeks, Senate Republicans have rebuffed all Democratic efforts to move forward with the budget negotiation process, and any progress the president might have made through a series of recent bipartisan outreach efforts appears to have abated.

"Senate Democrats have now requested unanimous consent to move to conference five times," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., referring to the process by which the House and the Senate could negotiate their two bills in a press briefing Thursday. "Every time, a Republican senator has stood up and said 'no.'"

One explanation for the stalled talks is a recent change in the terms of debate over raising the debt ceiling: According to calculations by the Bipartisan Policy Center, the government won't run out of money to pay its bills until October - as opposed to May, as was previously expected.

That buys Congress more time to come up with a deal for raising the debt ceiling, but it also lifts much of the urgency from the debate - and ostensibly takes away a key piece of leverage for Republicans hoping to drive a hard bargain in negotiations for a comprehensive budget bill.

They're "now running away from conference and they are running right toward a crisis," Murray told reporters Thursday. She argued that instead of hunkering down on budget negotiations, the GOP is "pushing up toward the next crisis" and focusing on "what the ransom should be for allowing the federal government to pay its bills."

"That's not how you operate in a democracy and it's the wrong way to go," she said.

Congressional Republicans have not yet decided what terms they'll seek in exchange for their approval in raising the debt ceiling. Next Wednesday, according to a GOP leadership aide, they'll convene for a special conference meeting to discuss their various options. The new deadline for resolving the matter makes it tougher for Republicans to take action imminently.

"If you've got a debt ceiling coming up, you do feel some sense of urgency," said Ornstein. "From the Republicans' perspective, they figure their big leverage over Obama is once again to hold the debt ceiling hostage... For those people who are very, very leery of a deal that includes any [tax] revenues it was the only hope they had, I think, so I the impetus to do something now instead of waiting is reduced."

A deal is not completely out of the realm of possibilities, however, according to Ornstein. He says if there are enough Senate Republicans who are willing to discuss a "tradeoff" with Mr. Obama, Senate leadership could overrule lone Republican dissenters trying to hold up the process.

"What it'll take is a willingness on the part of 15 to 20 Republican senators to cut the deal that includes chained CPI, some means testing in Medicare, and a few other ways of tightening up the process and reforming the system in return for some revenues," Ornstein said. Then, you'd have to get at least 70 votes in the Senate in order to force Boehner's hand to bring up a bill in the House that would get more Democratic than Republican support, he said.

"That's not zero probability but it's certainly not more than 10 percent at this point," he said.

Comments