Two years ago, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray co-led a special congressional committee to forge a deal with Republicans to shrink the federal deficit. The so-called super committee folded after three months, triggering automatic spending cuts that Murray has since pushed to undo.Now the Washington Democrat has another shot at a bipartisan compromise over the budget.
Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will lead 27 other lawmakers to reconcile the two parties' competing budget resolutions. Their goal at a minimum is to draft a blueprint on how to fund the government for the remainder of this fiscal year when the current stopgap spending bill expires Jan. 15.
The stakes for Murray's do-over: dodging another government shutdown.
Appearing in Seattle on Wednesday, Murray seemed to be counting on conservatives chastened by the backlash against the 16-day partial government closure this month to avoid repeating the super committee's failure.
Creation of the budget conference committee was part of the deal that raised the debt ceiling and reopened the government last Thursday.
"I think the actions of the last few weeks have really made the country aware that people who aren't willing to compromise end up putting our country in a lot of jeopardy," Murray said. "And I think the Republicans who are coming to the table realize they can't put us in that kind of jeopardy any more."
Murray made her comments at Jewish Family Services, where she toured a food bank and had a public chat with four women who rely on Head Start, subsidized housing and other services that could be cut in January under a second round of forced belt tightening called sequestration.
Murray will preside over the budget conference with Ryan, whom she has gotten to know well, especially since she took over as chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee in January. Ryan chairs the House Budget Committee.
The conference committee will hold its first public meeting next Wednesday. Their deadline to reach a deal is Dec. 13.
Murray called Ryan "a decent man" and a personable guy who cares for his community and country. At the same time, Ryan, the GOP's candidate for vice president in 2012, is a fiscal hawk and the architect of a Republican budget plan that would do away with Medicare as a government-run insurance program, slash top income-tax rates and make other changes that Democrats call unbalanced and lacking compassion.
Ryan also voted against last Wednesday's deal that reopened the government and averted a default. He said it merely delayed reckoning on the federal debt.
Whether the two can close the $91 billion gap between their respective 2014 budgets will depend on which Ryan shows up for bargaining, Murray said.
"There is in my mind a curiosity about whether Paul Ryan can come to the table and be a negotiator or whether Paul Ryan is going to be the guy who wants to go to his caucus and say, 'I can be as conservative as everybody else here,'?" she said. "And he's going to have to decide."
Murray's task as co-chair of the 2011 super committee was to help find $1.2 trillion worth of ways to shrink the federal deficit over a decade. But the panel's six Democrats and six Republicans deadlocked over the former's insistence on new tax revenue to offset some of the austerity and the GOP's demands for an all-cuts approach.
The committee disbanded before hashing out even a tentative proposal.
Murray's challenge this time is far smaller, if not any easier.
In March, she released a proposed fiscal 2014 budget of more than $1 trillion for discretionary programs, which accounts for a third of the federal budget not earmarked for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps and other mandatory spending.
The deal that reopened the government last Thursday set the discretionary budget authority $72 billion lower, at $986 billion. That will drop by an additional $19 billion around Jan. 15 if the budget conference fails - and possibly set off another government shutdown.
Murray's hope is the budget conference will yield a consensus on the spending cap for the rest of fiscal 2014, which ends next Sept. 30, and perhaps for 2015 as well. The $91 billion that separates her 2014 discretionary budget and the Republican version is the sequestration, arbitrary cuts that must fall equally on defense and nondefense programs.
In her budget, Murray proposed raising $1 trillion in new taxes over 10 years by closing unspecified loopholes for corporations and wealthy Americans.
Murray and the Democrats are adamant about raising new revenue because they have already agreed to lower spending caps as part of the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling in 2011. As a result, the 2014 nondefense discretionary budget cap of $469 billion is about what it was in 2002 in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
That was a point underlying Murray's appearance in Seattle. She introduced Emma Chapman, who relied on Head Start to help her son with development problems and to secure housing for the family, enabling her to advance from a food server and housekeeper to a legal assistant. She is now in law school at Seattle University.
Asked if finding new revenue remains nonnegotiable, Murray said, "I think we all have to scour the budget for ways to cut responsibly. We have to scour the tax code for ways that we can produce revenues."
A spokesman for Ryan declined to say whether he was willing to meet the Democrats halfway. He reiterated what Ryan said after his inaugural breakfast with Murray last week: "Our goal is to do good for the American people, to get the debt under control, to have smart deficit reduction, and to do things that will grow the economy and get people back to work."
Dean Baker, an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., believes Democrats have the upper hand.
"The Republicans don't want another shutdown," Baker said. "The Democrats will have to give them a few symbolic victories, perhaps some of the cuts in food stamps they were pushing for, but I doubt that they will move much on the substance. I can't see why they would."
But William McBride, chief economist at the Tax Foundation, a tax-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., was skeptical.
McBride said finding $91 billion in revenue to replace the sequestration would be fairly easy. But the chance of Republicans embracing new taxes, he said, "is close to zero.""Republicans are opposed to tax increases. I don't see how they'd agree to one in this context," McBride said.
Murray isn't surprised by such views.
"I don't blame anybody for being pessimistic about this," she said. "Our country has been through a lot."