Republican budget negotiator Paul Ryan has publicly ruled out a long sought-after “grand bargain” with Democrats over taxation and spending, saying the two sides are “too far apart” for any comprehensive agreement and should focus on short term fixes instead.
“I don’t see a grand bargain happening,” he told a summit in Washington. “The question is can we can get a down payment on the problem to buy the country time and space?”
The chairman of the House budget committee also insisted he would not meet with senators for a conference committee to bridge their two budget proposals because it risked hardening their respective positions further.
“We want to go to conference when we have a good chance of getting something done,” Ryan said. “If we have a monthslong stalemate in conference, people dig in and it makes it harder to reach a compromise.”
His intransigence was matched by Democrats who appeared at the event, who are preparing for another standoff over the federal debt ceiling in September instead.
Patty Murray, leader of the Senate budget committee, described the competing budget proposals as “fairly far apart”. “The Ryan budget proposes vouchers for Medicare and that is not going to happen. It is a non-starter,” she said.
Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, revealed that private talks with Ryan had made little progress either. “Paul has asked that he and I meet together and discuss the issues, but if you are in a closed room with just two of you, you are not going to get to a deal. We need to involve all of Congress.”
Not everyone on Capitol Hill is as gloomy about progress, but moderates said only White House involvement stood a chance of bridging the divide.
On Monday President Obama played golf with two Republican senators, Saxby Chambliss and Bob Corker, in latest in a series of private efforts to woo Congress. Economics adviser Gene Sperling joked that the White House had even arranged a hole-in-one for Chambliss to help persuade him.
“The real negotiation has to take place between the president and those in Congress who want to get something done,” said Republican senator and former budget director Rob Portman. “There are Republicans who feel we should wait for another election but I don’t think the country can wait for 2017 to fix this. We are not lacking ideas; we are lacking political will.”
He predicted that another standoff over raising the federal debt ceiling in September and October was the only hope of forcing both sides to reach a compromise. “It’s an effective way for us to focus people’s attention,” said Portman.
But even this received short shrift from Sperling, Obama’s chief economic adviser, who completed the session of speakers. “The president has been very clear: he is not negotiating on the debt limit.” said Sperling. “No one should ever threaten the default of the United States as a way to get their budget goals.”
Nevertheless Republicans and Democrats did agree on some relative “bright spots” in the interminable budget standoff.
Sperling said the next five months presented the best chance in years of reaching agreement, particularly as next year politicians would be too focused on impending mid-term elections.
“Historically, as we saw in 1997, the first year of a president’s second term is a good time for people to come together to make hard choices,” he said.
Ryan also singled out two areas where he felt short-term progress was possible. He pointed to proposals to subject Medicare recipients to means-testing as an area where both Republicans and some Democrats were in agreement.
He also pledged to draft new reforms of the tax system in the House, even if bipartisan efforts in the Senate falter.
Republicans say they are willing to close tax loopholes for the rich if overall tax rates are brought down too and government spending does not increase. Democrats say this is difficult to make add up, but may be willing to work with their opponents on the tax reform element.
Meanwhile both sides conceded that the statemate was causing great harm to the economy and frustrating voters.
“The stock market may be at record highs but incomes are falling,” said Portman.
“Out country is tired of Congress managing by crisis,” added Murray.