Budget Negotiations Kick Off On Capitol Hill

House and Senate negotiators start a conference on the budget Wednesday, with the goal of coming up with an agreement by Dec. 13. There's not much hope of a grand bargain that would put fiscal policy on a long-term sustainable path. But there could be something small. And in the short term, lawmakers must deal with the sequester and the stopgap spending bill, which runs out Jan. 15.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today, something uncommon is happening on Capitol Hill. Not one, but two conference committees are meeting to work out the differences between House and Senate on the budget and the farm bill. This is the way Congress was designed to work. These days, those sorts of committees are quite rare.

To talk about what's at stake, we're joined by NPR congressional correspondent, Tamara Keith. Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So this budget conference committee is part of the deal that ended the government shutdown. The committee has a deadline of December 13th to get the Senate and the House together on a budget. What can it really hope to accomplish in just those few weeks?

KEITH: Possibly not very much. I think that the minimum hope is that they could come up with something small. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and their staffs are doing their best to reduce expectations. As one aide put it: These two budgets are different species, and they can't be married. And here's the thing: If they miss this deadline, nothing happens, which means that there's even less pressure to get it done. The only thing that might put pressure on the committee to come up with some sort of agreement is the sequester. Those are those automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. Well, another bunch are coming in mid-January. And that is pushing at least some pressure on the committee to come up with an agreement.

MONTAGNE: Well, talking about the sequester, remind us what does happen come January, if it comes to that.

KEITH: It's another round of cuts. Particularly defense will feel it even more strongly than non-defense parts of the government. And this, if you remember, is a result of the debt ceiling deal back in 2011. They created a supercommittee, and then when it failed, that set in motion the sequester. And Congress has been unable to undo or replace these automatic spending cuts, which a growing number of people feel are not a good way to run a government. And, in fact, House Republicans on the Armed Services Committee sent a letter to this conference committee, saying please try to do something about the sequester. Still, there's not a lot of hope that big accomplishments will come out of the committee.

MONTAGNE: So, I'm guessing there's no chance of something that's been talked about for so long now, which is a grand bargain.

KEITH: That's certainly what everyone I'm talking to is saying. I think that what some people are hoping for is a very small bargain. That would possibly undo or replace the sequester for maybe a year, maybe two years. The way Democrats would like to do that is a combination of new revenue - possibly new taxes - and small cuts to entitlement programs and other mandatory spending. Republicans are saying no new taxes, and they're not too fond of most forms of new revenue. And this is the ongoing fight that's been happening for years now, and is likely to continue right through this conference committee and whatever the next crisis we face is, as well.

MONTAGNE: OK. Well, let's set aside that particular fight for a moment and move to the next possible fight, which is the farm bill. That conference committee devoted to that subject is meeting in the afternoon. What differences need to be worked out there?

KEITH: There is broad agreement on doing away with something called direct payments. This is a program that's been around for quite some time that paid farmers regardless of whether they planted a crop or not. There's agreement that needs to go away, but there's some disagreement about how to replace it. But the big fight in the farm bill is over food stamps, about aid to needy people. The House bill cuts $40 billion over 10 years from the food stamp program. The Senate bill cuts $4 billion over 10 years. So that is a very big difference. And they're also large philosophical differences there that will, no doubt, the toughest thing that this committee faces.

MONTAGNE: Tamara, thanks very much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR congressional correspondent, Tamara Keith.

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