We couldn’t be more different, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) acknowledged as she took her turn at the podium following Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to announce the budget deal they had just concluded. “We cheer for a different sports team, we catch a different fish…but we agree our country needs some certainty,” she said, and by focusing on what they could agree on and setting aside what could not be bridged, they managed against high odds to craft a two-year budget that each seems confident can pass muster with their colleagues.
The deal, if it passes the House later this week and then the Senate, will prevent a government shutdown in January and again in October, and provide that much talked-about certainty that the markets and the business community and government contractors—everybody, in short—is demanding. Ryan said he and Murray had been talking all year and that she “got the ball rolling” when the Senate Budget Committee, which she chairs, passed a budget early this year, a step Republicans had demanded.
The key to the duo’s success, they said, is that neither gave on what was most important for their side. For Republicans, that meant no tax increase; for Democrats, no cuts in entitlements. “We knew if we forced each other to compromise on a core principle, we would get nowhere,” Ryan said.
The deal relieves about half of sequester cuts due to take effect next year and avoids the next big bite out of defense spending. It makes up the difference in revenue by raising airport fees and by asking federal employees and the military to contribute more to their retirement pensions. The military piece takes courage for both parties, and Murray got a lot of pushback from Democrats who represent federal workers. But it was not a deal-killer.
The numbers will be sorted out, and they are posted on Murray’s and Ryan’s websites. Murray pointed out that Ryan, whom she called “a tough negotiator,” originally wanted $20 billion in increased pension contributions, and she got him down to $6 billion from federal workers and $6 billion from service members, a percentage that is in line with what President Obama had included for federal workers in his budget.
In the press conference on Capitol Hill, most of the questions were directed at Ryan, and they were along the lines of “How could a conservative sign off on a budget that relieves sequester spending and barely touches the deficit?” “What am I getting out of this?” Ryan said, as he ticked off the positive elements from his perspective. One, he was getting more deficit reduction than if no deal was reached; two, there is no tax increase, and three, as a conservative, he finally got to deal with programs that are “on automatic pilot” and rise each year without scrutiny.
Both lawmakers stressed that in such a divided and partisan Congress, that they could come together and on time to make Friday’s deadline represents a breakthrough. Ryan said theirs is the first divided government budget agreement since 1986, when President Reagan was in the White House. Murray said she was disappointed they could not close a single corporate loophole but declared victory anyway, saying they had “broken through the partisanship and gridlock” and built trust for the challenges ahead.
A Capitol Hill press corps, having watched other budget agreements collapse in the face of Tea Party opposition, pressed Ryan on his expectations for passage. He predicted “a healthy vote in the House,” saying he had worked in tandem with his party’s leadership, committee chairs, and consulted with numerous colleagues. “Why would a conservative pass on this?” he asked, ticking off the numbers—$1.012 trillion for 2014; $1.014 trillion for 2015. “We were talking a $1.019 trillion” until last year, he said, and that is a victory for conservatives.
Murray talked about the programs she protected—Head Start, Meals on Wheels, scientific research—and put the best possible spin on the increased pension money from federal workers, saying that without a deal they would be facing furloughs and uncertainty. She said she has been in close contact with her leadership, and she’s “confident we won’t have 100 percent. We both had to move to get where we are today,” she said, adding that it’s important for the country to see that people can come together in the Congress “from very different corners” and get something done.
As the details of the deal get digested and the pundits weigh in on who won and who lost, a lot will ride on Ryan’s ability to convince House Republicans to back him. As their party’s former vice-presidential nominee and a well-known deficit hawk, Ryan has the credentials to bring his party with him. “As a conservative, I deal with a situation as it exists,” he said, noting that as chairman of the House Budget Committee, he passed three budgets in a row with partisan support. They went nowhere in the Democratic-led Senate. Passing legislation in a divided Congress requires compromise to meet the other side. “I’m not going a mile in distance,” he said, “but I will go a few steps.” In a Congress as broken as this one has been, a few steps matters.