WASHINGTON -- The Senate Democrat who cut the last budget deal to avoid the full impact of sequestration is warning Republicans they risk a government shutdown unless they craft a similar agreement soon.
In a speech on Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called on any deal to relieve the forthcoming spending cuts to follow four guidelines. Reflecting the extremely low bar that Congress has set for itself, the first of those guidelines is that the deal can be small in nature.
“Sure,” Murray said, according to excerpts of her prepared remarks, “it would be great to work together to address some of the big challenges we face when it comes to our long-term budget challenges -- but if we can’t find a path to another small deal, we are not going to discover the way to a big one.”
The remaining three guidelines are similar to past Democratic demands for any negotiated budget settlement. Sequester relief, Murray said, needs to be done equally for defense and non-defense investments –- “this is non-negotiable”; it “should” be paid for by “a responsible mix of spending cuts and new revenues”; and, finally, it should be aimed at broader economic growth.
“Honestly, this doesn’t have to be this difficult,” Murray, the fourth-ranking Senate Democrat, said during an appearance at law firm BakerHostetler's legislative seminar. “Working across the aisle to set topline budget numbers, and then working together to fill that budget out with spending bills is pretty much the least we should be able to do here in Congress.”
That Murray feels compelled to tout the relative simplicity of a prospective budget deal suggests that lawmakers are worried that negotiations won’t succeed. As much as anything else, her speech excerpts reflect an attempt to frame in advance the causes of a potential government shutdown this fall.
Sequestration spending cuts -– a policy that was put in motion by the deal to raise the debt ceiling back in 2011 –- are set to return this October after a two-year semi-hiatus. And with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, the president increasingly protective of his domestic priorities, and the presidential campaign in full swing, the likelihood of political retrenchment seems high.
Already, Republicans have passed budgets that further cut non-discretionary defense accounts while adding spending to the defense budget through an account that isn’t subjected to sequestration caps. That lack of balance has been sharply criticized by congressional Democrats. Even earlier, President Barack Obama said he would not sign a government-funding bill this fall that didn’t include sequestration relief for non-defense priorities, significantly raising the stakes for a shut down.
“Republicans have a choice,” Murray said. “They can either work with us early on a bipartisan budget deal that will set the topline budget levels and allow the Appropriations Committee to work on bills that can be signed into law. Or, they can wait until we reach a crisis, until we approach or hit another completely unnecessary government shutdown -- and work with us then.”
A House GOP aide said Murray may be engaging in a bit of wishful thinking when assessing the possibilities of negotiations and in setting the blame for a potential shutdown.
"In the past, all of the shutdowns and threats of shutdowns occurred because Republicans were trying to change current law," the aide said in an email, listing congressional Republican fights in the spring of 2011, as well as attempts to defund Obamacare in 2013, as examples. "Democrats were trying to move forward legislation along the lines of current law and we were the ones trying to cause a ruckus."
Now the tables have turned, the aide pointed out. "It’s Democrats advocating changes to current law with a shutdown as a consequence if they don’t get what they want." By that logic, they can't blame Republicans for causing a shutdown if they're "just following the statutory caps" that Democrats voted for in the Budget Control Act.
Obama’s own budget calls for a full busting of the sequestration spending caps as part of a nearly 7 percent increase in discretionary spending. But budget documents are mostly aspirational. And in reality, both he and Congress are likely to see a reprisal of a sequestration-relief deal that was cut nearly two years ago.
Back then, Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), then the House Budget Committee chairman, successfully put together a package providing $63 billion in sequestration relief over a two-year period divided equally between defense and non-defense accounts. Democrats agreed to the deal because it helped rescue some of their domestic priorities. Republicans signed off in part because an extra $20 billion-plus in savings was set aside for deficit reduction and the deal also extended a cut to Medicare providers that was part of the initial sequestration.
An aide to Murray, who no longer chairs the Senate Budget Committee, said she would support a deal similar to the last one both in scope and length. Though he has moved on to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan said that he too would be comfortable with a second agreement.
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