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Experts Skeptical Congress Will Be Able to Resolve Budget Differences

The statue of Grief and History stands in front of the Capitol Dome in Washington October 15, 2013.
The statue of Grief and History stands in front of the Capitol Dome in Washington October 15, 2013.
Cindy Saine
The U.S. government is open for business again after budget bickering in Congress closed many government operations for 16 days.  But the budget deal is just temporary.  Congress has set up a group to quickly forge a broad, long-term budget agreement. But the two parties remain far apart on spending and savings priorities, and experts say similar efforts to work out a budget deal have failed in the past.  

President Barack Obama says the U.S. Congress cannot govern by lurching from crisis to crisis.  Speaking Thursday, he said lawmakers must change the way they have been doing business and work out a budget deal.

“And we shouldn't approach this process of creating a budget as an ideological exercise - just cutting for the sake of cutting.  The issue is not growth versus fiscal responsibility - we need both.  We need a budget that deals with the issues that most Americans are focused on: creating more good jobs that pay better wages," said President Obama.

The deal was worked out at the last minute to avert a debt default and reopen large parts of the federal government.  The agreement requires House and Senate Democrats and Republicans to appoint members to a conference committee, which is supposed to negotiate a comprehensive budget deal.  Such an agreement has eluded Congress for the past three years.  

The group met for breakfast Thursday.  Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said just meeting and talking is a sign of progress.

“This is how the founders envisioned the Constitution working.  And so we want to get back to that.  We haven’t had a budget conference since 2009 and so we think it’s high time that we start talking together trying to reconcile our differences," said Ryan.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, a Democrat, also voiced optimism.

“We believe there is common ground in showing the American people that as a Congress we can work and make sure that our economy is growing and that people are back to work," said Murray.

Despite the positive start, analysts point out that Democrats and Republicans have very different positions on government's role and size.  Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report:

“The Democrats want additional revenue [higher taxes] and additional spending.  The Republicans want to hold the line on taxes and to shrink government," said Rothenberg.

Republicans traditionally oppose raising taxes, and support deep cuts to the social programs that Democrats defend.  Democrats traditionally want higher taxes on corporations to pay for higher investments in education and social welfare programs.  

Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blamed Republicans for triggering the government shutdown by linking a funding bill to a measure to derail President Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act.

“They may not like government, the Republicans, but they are here to govern, and to legislate, which means you have to make compromises and choose, instead of going from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis," said Pelosi.

Opinion polls show that Republicans get more blame than Democrats for the partial government shutdown and debt standoff.  Stuart Rothenberg says that makes it less likely we will see a repeat of the bitter standoff over the health care measure, known as Obamacare.

“Well, I think they learned a lesson about Obamacare, that they are not going to change that," he said.

The conference committee has until December 13 to craft an agreement.  

The bill passed by the House and Senate late Wednesday only funds the government until mid-January and extends the debt ceiling until early February, so the budget conference committee and Congress must act or risk going to the brink of economic disaster again.

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