WASHINGTON -- WASHINGTON (AP) — On this, GOP budget guru Rep. Paul Ryan and top Senate Democrat Harry Reid can agree: There won't be a "grand bargain" on the budget.
Instead, the Wisconsin Republican and the Nevada Democrat both say the best Washington can do in this bitterly partisan era of divided government is a small-ball bargain that tries to take the edge off of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
Official Capitol Hill negotiations start next week, but Ryan and Reid both weighed in Thursday to tamp down any expectations that the talks might forge a large-scale agreement where several previous high-level talks have failed.
Long-standing, entrenched differences over taxes make a large-scale budget pact virtually impossible, according to lawmakers, their aides and observers who will be monitoring the talks.
Republicans say they simply won't agree to any further taxes atop the 10-year, $600 billion-plus tax increase on upper-income earners that President Barack Obama and Democrats muscled through Congress in January. Without higher taxes, Democrats say they won't yield to cuts in benefit programs like Medicare.
"If we focus on some big, grand bargain then we're going to focus on our differences, and both sides are going to require that the other side compromises some core principle and then we'll get nothing done," Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, said in an interview Thursday. "So we aren't focusing on a grand bargain because I don't think in this divided government you'll get one."
In an interview Thursday with Nevada public radio station KNPR, Reid, the Senate majority leader, agreed that a large-scale grand bargain wasn't in the cards.
"They have their mind set on doing nothing, nothing more on revenue, and until they get off that kick, there's not going to be a grand bargain," Reid said. "We're just going to have to do something to work our way through sequestration."
Ryan, his party's vice presidential nominee a year ago, and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., are two of the key congressional figures in the talks. They both say they're seeking common ground between the sharply different Republican and Democratic budgets.
Common ground, however, is a much different concept than compromise. It involves finding ideas upon which they can agree rather than compromising principles such as Republican opposition to tax increases or the unwillingness by many Democrats to consider cutting future Social Security benefits by decreasing the annual cost-of-living adjustments.
Instead of a broad agreement encompassing tax hikes and structural curbs on the growth of benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid, Ryan says he's seeking a "smaller, more achievable objective."
The talks, he said, also will focus on alleviating another upcoming round of automatic spending cuts and replacing them with longer-term cuts.
Sequestration mostly hits so-called discretionary spending, the money approved by Congress each year to run agency operations. Ryan wants to cut autopilot-like spending on entitlement programs like Medicare to ease sequestration's effects on both the Pentagon and domestic programs.
"I think we all agree that there's a smarter way to cut spending" than sequestration, Ryan said. "If I can reform entitlement programs where the savings compound annually ... that is more valuable for reducing the debt than a one-time spending cut in discretionary spending."
The White House and Democrats are pressing to include new revenue from closing tax loopholes and infrastructure spending to boost the economy.
"Even if we do not have the big grand bargain, if you were to have a medium deal or small deal, those deals could have permanent loophole closures and permanent mandatory savings that would help our permanent long-term fiscal situation," senior White House official Gene Sperling told a business group Friday.
The automatic spending cuts are required because a 2011 deficit-reduction supercommittee failed to reach an agreement. The cuts would carve $91 billion from the day-to-day budgets of the Pentagon and domestic agencies in 2014 compared with the spending caps set by a 2011 budget deal. The Pentagon would absorb almost 60 percent of the cuts.
While the first official meeting of the larger House-Senate negotiating team is scheduled for next week, Ryan and Murray have been talking already.
Republicans are looking at a bushel basket of cuts to Medicare health care providers contained in Obama's budget. They also have voiced support for curbing Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, an idea Obama has backed, but only in the context of a broader deal in which Republicans would allow tax increases. That proposal won't fly in the current talks.
There are also several supercommittee ideas like curbing Postal Service cost overruns, making federal workers contribute more to their pensions and raising premiums on higher-income Medicare beneficiaries.
Democrats, meanwhile, are wary of using cuts to Medicare and other entitlement programs to ease cuts in the defense budget. Negotiators still might explore curbing generous military retirement, health care and prescription drug benefits as a way to restore cuts to readiness and procurement of weapons systems.
"Congressional Democrats and the White House, rightly in my view, don't want to use domestic entitlement cuts to offset easing or eliminating the defense side of sequestration on top of the nondefense discretionary side," said Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
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The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate roughly <a href="http://www.parade.com/news/2009/03/why-we-must-fix-our-prisons.html" target="_hplink">five times higher than the global average</a>. We have about 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners, according to The Economist,. This status quo costs our local, state and federal governments a combined $68 billion a year -- all of which becomes a federal problem during recessions, when states look to Washington for fiscal relief. Over the standard 10-year budget window used in Congress, that's a $680 billion hit to the deficit. Solving longstanding prison problems -- releasing elderly convicts unlikely to commit crimes, offering treatment or counseling as an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders, slightly shortening the sentences of well-behaved inmates, and substituting probation for more jail-time -- would do wonders for government spending.
End Of The Drug War
The federal government spends more than <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-20072096.html" target="_hplink">$15 billion a year</a> investigating and prosecuting the War on Drugs. That's $150 billion in Washington budget-speak, and it doesn't include the far higher costs of incarcerating millions of people for doing drugs. This money isn't getting the government the results it wants. As drug war budgets balloon, drug use escalates. Ending the Drug War offers the government two separate budget boons. In addition to saving all the money spending investigating, prosecuting and incarcerating drug offenders, Uncle Sam could actually regulate and tax drugs like marijuana, generating new revenue. Studies by pot legalization advocates indicate that fully legalizing weed in California would yield <a href="http://canorml.org/background/CA_legalization2.html" target="_hplink">up to $18 billion annually</a> for that state's government alone. For the feds, the benefits are even sweeter.
Let Medicare Negotiate With Big Pharma
The U.S. has <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/06/01/us-healthcare-costs-sb-idUSTRE5504Z320090601" target="_hplink">higher health care costs than any other country</a>. We spend over 15 percent of our total economic output each year on health care -- roughly 50 percent more than Canada, and double what the U.K. spends. Why? The American private health care system is inefficient, and the intellectual property rules involving medication in the U.S. can make prescription drugs much more expensive than in other countries. Medicare currently spends about $50 billion a year on prescription drugs. According to economist Dean Baker, <a href="http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/intellectual_property_2004_09.pdf" target="_hplink">Americans spend roughly 10 times more than they need to</a> on prescription drugs as a result of our unique intellectual property standards. These savings for the government, of course, would come from the pockets of major pharmaceutical companies, currently among the most profitable corporations the world has ever known. They also exercise tremendous clout inside the Beltway. President Barack Obama even <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/02/barack-obama-politics_n_1847947.html" target="_hplink">guaranteed drug companies more restrictive -- and lucrative -- intellectual property standards</a> in order to garner their support for the Affordable Care Act.
Offshore Tax Havens
The U.S. Treasury Department estimates that it loses about <a href="http://www.ctj.org/pdf/stopact.pdf" target="_hplink">$100 billion a year</a> in revenue due to offshore tax haven abuses. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has been pushing legislation for years to rein in this absurd tax maneuvering, but corporate lobbying on Capitol Hill has prevented the bill from becoming law.
Deprivatize Government Contract Work
In recent years, the federal government has privatized an enormous portion of public projects to government contractors. Over the past decade, the federal government's staffing has held steady, while the number of federal contractors has <a href="http://pogoarchives.org/m/co/igf/bad-business-report-only-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">increased by millions</a>. This outsourcing has resulted in much higher costs for the government than would be incurred by simply doing the work in-house. On average, contractors are paid <a href="http://pogoarchives.org/m/co/igf/bad-business-report-only-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">nearly double</a> what a comparable federal employee would receive for the same job, according to the Project On Government Oversight.
Print More Money
There's an old saying in economics: You have to print money to make money. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/09/underwear-sales-growth-economy_n_1952214.html" target="_hplink">Okay, there's no such saying</a>. Nevertheless, the great boogeyman of many conservative economic doctrines -- inflation -- isn't such a bad idea during periods where much of the citizenry is drowning in debt. Inflation is by no means a perfect remedy: it's a stealth cut to workers' wages. But it also has many benefits that are often unacknowledged by the Washington intelligentsia. Inflation makes housing debt, student loan debt and any other private-sector debt more manageable. Today, when <a href="http://www.corelogic.com/about-us/researchtrends/asset_upload_file448_16434.pdf" target="_hplink">10.8 million</a> homes are underwater -- meaning borrowers owe banks than their houses are worth, moderate inflation could ease that debt burden. By effectively reducing monthly bills, moderate inflation could actually put more money in the pockets of these homeowners to spend elsewhere, thus stimulating the economy. Moderate inflation -- 5 percent or so -- could also help alleviate the <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57555780/student-loan-debt-nears-$1-trillion-is-it-the-new-subprime/" target="_hplink">$1 trillion</a> in student debt currently plaguing America's graduates. Make no mistake -- hyperinflation of 20 percent, 30 percent or more -- is bad. But the U.S. has ways to crush inflation when it gets out of hand, as proven by the Federal Reserve under then-Chairman Paul Volcker in the early-1980s.
Print Less Money
The government prints a <em>lot</em> of $1 bills. But it turns out that minting $1 coins is much, much cheaper. Over the course of 30 years, the government could save $4.4 billion by switching from dollar bills to dollar coins. Here's looking at you, <a href="http://www.usmint.gov/mint_programs/nativeamerican/" target="_hplink">Sacagawea</a>.
Immigration: Less Detention, More Ankle Bracelets
The government spends <a href="http://newamericamedia.org/2012/04/ice-slow-to-embrace-alternatives-to-immigrant-detention.php" target="_hplink"> $122 per person, per day</a> detaining immigrants who are considered safe and unlikely to commit crimes. The government has plenty of other options available to monitor such people, at a cost of as little as $15 per person. For the first 205 years of America's existence, there was no federal system for detaining immigrants. The process began in 1981.
Financial Speculation Tax
Wall Street loves to gamble. In good times, financial speculation is the source of tremendous profits in America's banking system, but when the bets go bad, the government picks up the tab, as evidenced by the epic bank bailouts of 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, this speculation is difficult to define in legalistic terminology and even more difficult to police. One solution? By taxing every financial trade at the ultra-low rate of 0.25 percent, the U.S. government can impose a modest incentive against gambling for the sheer sake of gambling. If there's an immediate cost to placing a bet, a lot of traders will choose not to bet. What's more, this tax could raise about <a href="http://www.ips-dc.org/media/why_a_financial_transaction_tax" target="_hplink">$150 billion a year</a> for the federal government.
Taxing greenhouse gases would generate $80 billion a year right now, and up to $310 billion a year by 2050, <a href="http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/07/carbon-tax-mckibbin-morris-wilcoxen" target="_hplink">according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution</a>. It would also help avert catastrophic ecological and economic damage from climate change.