WASHINGTON – Speaker John Boehner is trying to make one last deal as he heads for the exits, pushing to finalize a far-reaching, two-year budget agreement before handing Congress’ top job over to Paul Ryan this week, congressional officials said Monday.
The deal, in concert with a must-pass increase in the federal borrowing limit, would solve the thorniest issues awaiting Ryan, who is set to be elected speaker on Thursday. It would also take budget showdowns and government shutdown fights off the table until after the 2016 presidential election, a potential boon to Republican candidates who might otherwise face uncomfortable questions about messes in the GOP-led Congress.
Congress must raise the federal borrowing limit by Nov. 3 or risk a first-ever default, while money to pay for government operations runs out Dec. 11 unless Congress acts. Top House and Senate aides have been meeting with White House officials in search of a deal that would give both the Pentagon and domestic agencies budget relief in exchange for cuts elsewhere in the budget.
The measure under discussion would suspend the current $18.1 trillion debt limit through March 2017. After that it would be reset by the Treasury Department to reflect borrowing over that time.
The emerging budget side of the deal resembles a pact that Ryan himself put together two years ago in concert with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that eased automatic spending cuts for the 2014-2015 budget years. Many conservatives disliked the measure and many on the GOP’s right flank are likely to oppose the new one, which would apply to the 2016-2017 budget years.
“Fiscal negotiations are ongoing,” McConnell said as he opened the Senate on Monday afternoon. “As the details come in and especially if an agreement is reached, I intend to consult and discuss the details with our colleagues.”
“We’re just trying to get something done as soon as we can,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said earlier on Monday. Negotiators hoped to officially file the legislation Monday night but it’s not clear if they’ll meet the goal.
GOP defense hawks are a driving force for an agreement. Democrats and the White House are pressing hard as well, demanding increases for domestic agencies on par with any Pentagon hikes.
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said: “Not everything has been agreed to. That means nothing at this point has been agreed to.”
Obama wants roughly $74 billion in additional defense and nondefense spending this year to ease agency budget curbs imposed by strict spending caps set under a 2011 debt and budget deal. The measure wouldn’t provide full relief demanded by defense hawks and would award equal increases to defense and domestic programs.
The pending talks focus on setting a new overall spending limit for agencies whose operating budgets are set by Congress each year. It will be up to the powerful House and Senate Appropriations committees to produce a detailed omnibus spending bill by the Dec. 11 deadline; those talks are likely to be arduous, especially as Republicans press policy provisions, known as “riders,” on a variety of topics, including the environment, travel to Cuba, and regulation of the Internet.
Details were sketchy but the tentative pact anticipates designating increases for the Pentagon as emergency war funds that can be made exempt from budget caps. Non-defense spending would get an increase as well, though not the full amount demanded by Obama in his February budget. Offsetting spending cuts included reforms to the Agriculture department’s crop insurance program, a “site neutral” proposal that would curb Medicare payments for outpatient services provided by hospitals, and extending a 2 percentage point cut in Medicare payments to doctors through the tail end of a 10-year budget “window.”
Lawmakers hoped to address two other key issues as well: a shortfall looming next year in Social Security payments to the disabled and a large increase for many retirees in Medicare premiums for doctors’ visits and other outpatient care.
Social Security’s disability trust fund is projected to run out of money in late 2016. If that is allowed to happen, it would trigger an automatic 19 percent cut in benefits for 11 million disabled workers and their families.
Congress and the White House have been discussing a temporary reallocation of payroll taxes from Social Security’s retirement fund to the disability fund. The move would be paired with changes to the disability program to fight fraud and to encourage disabled workers to return to work.
Officials who described the discussions did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about confidential negotiations.
Just days are left for the deal to come together before Ryan, R-Wisconsin, is elected on Thursday to replace Boehner, R-Ohio, who is leaving Congress under pressure from conservative lawmakers disgusted with his history of seeking compromise and Democratic votes on issues like the budget.
The deal would make good on a promise Boehner made in the days after announcing his surprise resignation from Congress last month. He said at the time: “I don’t want to leave my successor a dirty barn. I want to clean the barn up a little bit before the next person gets there.”
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Stephen Ohlemacher contributed.