WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, astonishingly united through recent fiscal fights with Republicans, were showing some divisions as budget negotiations opened Wednesday between the House and Senate to avert another crisis in coming months.
Democrats in Congress insist that Republicans, to prevent billions of dollars in scheduled cuts to military programs next year, must agree instead to raise new revenues by closing some tax breaks. But the White House, eager to end the arbitrary cuts known as sequestration for both military and domestic programs, has not linked taxes and Pentagon spending for a short-term budget deal covering a year or two.
By all accounts, Obama still wants Democrats and Republicans to try yet again for a sweeping, long-term budget accord. Such a grand bargain would provide immediate spending for infrastructure, education and other public investments while reducing future annual deficits by trillions of dollars through both tax increases and reductions in the fast-growing entitlement programs, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Time and opportunity for such legacy-making action is running out in his presidency, even as more baby boomers retire and begin drawing benefits.
But Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate have joined with their Republican counterparts to rule out any long-term deal — Republicans because they refuse to consider tax changes and Democrats because they will not consider changing the popular benefit programs without Republican concessions on revenues — especially with midterm congressional elections approaching in 2014. Obama is deferring to the Democratic leaders, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California.
The sequestration cuts, which took effect in March, are coming on top of the earlier spending reductions, and have forced cutbacks and closures in national parks, scientific research, education and much more.
While in his budget in April Obama proposed a 10-year plan to replace sequestration cuts, congressional Democrats and Republicans are aiming lower, seeking a deal that is realistically achievable before the negotiators' Dec. 13 deadline. That would probably be a one-year accord, both sides say, or two years at best, and would seek alternative savings to replace the roughly $110 billion a year in sequestration cuts.
The conference committee was created as part of the deal reached this month between the White House and Congress to reopen the government after a 16-day shutdown and to raise the nation's legal borrowing limit. The Dec. 13 deadline is intended to give the House and Senate time to translate any agreement into spending bills for financing government operations after current funding runs out Jan. 15. Failure would bring another unpopular shutdown.