U.S. lawmakers said near short-term budget deal

Dec. 5, 2013 at 2:00 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- House and Senate lawmakers are near an agreement that could end Washington's government shutdowns and some across-the-board spending cuts, aides said.

The deal, which aides said still faced partisan hurdles, could be worked out by the end of the week, congressional aides and lobbyists told the Wall Street Journal.

It would be a small, short-term deal -- nothing close to the bipartisan "grand bargain" budget lawmakers have long said they wanted -- but it would be a major step toward moving past recent budget showdowns, the aides said.

It would eliminate part of the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as the budget sequester and get rid of the possibility of another government shutdown, at least for 10 months, the aides said.

A deal by a 29-member House-Senate conference committee must be worked out by early next week to give both chambers time to approve and pass the measure by the Dec. 13 deadline set as part of the October deal that ended the government's 16-day partial shutdown.

In the deal, approved by lawmakers Oct. 16, the government is funded through Jan. 15 at sequester levels and the federal debt limit is suspended until Feb. 7.

If a deal is not worked out, new automatic cuts amounting roughly to $90 billion below the $1.058 trillion cap lawmakers put in place in 2011 would kick in.

Sequestration involves setting a hard cap on the amount of government spending within broadly defined categories. If Congress enacts spending plans that exceed these caps, the across-the-board spending cuts are automatically imposed on those categories, affecting all departments and programs equally.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate counterpart Patty Murray, D-Wash., met Wednesday and said through spokesmen they were optimistic they'd reach a deal.

"Ryan is committed to finding common ground. He hopes both parties can work together to cut spending in a smarter way," spokesman William Allison said.

Murray "is hopeful they can continue making progress and can reach a bipartisan deal by the deadline," spokesman Eli Zupnick said in remarks quoted by USA Today.

Aides declined to discuss details, but the Journal said lawmakers are focusing on discretionary spending -- most recently discussing new fees involving pension guarantees, the Transportation Security Administration and other aviation measures. Budget cuts under discussion included the federal employees pension program.

Democrats are resisting GOP efforts to squeeze savings out of the pension program, USA Today said, while Republicans oppose Democratic proposals to end some tax breaks for corporations and wealthy Americans.

Negotiators are aiming at a budget proposal with discretionary spending levels close to $1 trillion for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2014, several congressional aides told the Journal.

House Republicans wanted levels set at $967 billion, while Senate Democrats sought $1.058 trillion.

If worked out, the deal would let the House and Senate appropriations committees return to the regular process of passing annual spending bills.

It would also free up lawmakers to debate issues without the threat of fiscal brinkmanship hanging over the session, USA Today said.

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