Budget negotiators still working to craft a deal

The leaders of a group of lawmakers charged with negotiating a short-term budget deal within the next month said they are continuing to work together to shape an agreement but had no progress to report.

"We are not there yet," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the Republican leader. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., representing the Democrats, observed that "our budgets are dramatically different," but still said she was "encouraged" by their conversations.

The 29 lawmakers who are negotiating a short-term budget deal had their second public meeting Wednesday, a question-and-answer session with Doug Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office. Elmendorf told lawmakers that while a long-term budget deal would be "beneficial," even a smaller agreement that reduced uncertainty about the coming fiscal climate and refrained from adding to long-term budget woes would be a good thing.

"Big steps are better than small steps, but small steps are better than no steps at all," said Elmendorf, who came armed with a hefty study on ways to reduce the deficit.

The lawmakers have been instructed to craft a budget deal by Dec. 13 in order to avoid the government from shutting down again in January. Even though the two budgets put forth by the House and Senate are only $91 billion apart on 2014 spending levels, deep ideological issues may prevent the two sides from bridging that gap. Both sides would like to offset some of the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts mandated by sequestration, for example, but Democrats would like to do so by raising revenue and Republicans would like to find further cuts to domestic programs and reform entitlement programs in order to restore some of the lost money for defense spending.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post last weekend, Murray argued that raising revenue by cutting wasteful tax loopholes should be a part of any deal. She portrayed it as part of a compromise in exchange for Democrats finding further spending cuts in the budget. "While we scour programs to identify savings, Republicans have to work with us to scour the bloated tax code and close loopholes used by the wealthiest Americans and corporations to replace the other half of sequestration," she wrote.

But Ryan has resisted the budget conference as a forum for tax reform, preferring to leave the work to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., who are hammering out a broader set of changes to the tax code. "If we look at this conference as an argument about taxes, we're not going to get anywhere," Ryan said at the group's first public meeting in October.

Murray addressed the issue in her op-ed, writing that she agreed the group shouldn't be tackling major tax reforms. "But closing a few wasteful loopholes now would not threaten the much larger debate over simplifying the 75,000-page tax code," she wrote. "In fact, doing so would underscore how much more work remains."

Some of the members of the group, including Reps. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said the group needs to work quickly in order to let the appropriations committees get their work done.

"Reaching a number by Dec. 13 is absolutely doable. We should get in a room and get that done," Lowey said. Cole called it "a matter of some urgency" and said the group should wrap up its work by the Thanksgiving recess.

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.

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