Congress Aims For The Modest Bargain

It's not a grand bargain, as many were hoping, but House and Senate leaders say they are close to a budget agreement that will avoid a shutdown and set spending levels for the next two years. NPR's Tamara Keith talks to host Rachel Martin about the negotiations.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Rachel Martin.

The Senate comes back to Washington this week with a lengthy to-do list, and the House is hoping to wrap things up and get out of Dodge.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I've made it clear that the House is going to leave next Friday and you all know me pretty well. I mean what I say and I say what I mean.

MARTIN: That, of course, was speaker of the House John Boehner. Still undone: a budget agreement to set overall spending policy and avoid another government shutdown. House and Senate budget committee leaders say they're getting close.

Here to tell us what that's all about is NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith.

Hi, Tamara.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

MARTIN: So when we talk about the budget, there's the grand bargain we often talk about, and there are little bargains. I take it we are talking about little bargains here.

KEITH: Oh this is an itsy-bitsy bargain.

MARTIN: A little bargain.

KEITH: Yes. The grand bargain is off the table. What they're talking about something here now is something really quite modest. They're hoping to set spending levels for the next two years and they're also hoping to at least undo part of the sequester, most likely with some smaller domestic cuts, getting rid of defense cuts, and also to add some new revenue that is not new taxes.

MARTIN: OK, so...

KEITH: So, fees.

MARTIN: So, fee. So how is all of that considered a more modest approach?

KEITH: Well, it doesn't get at any of the bigger issues that they've been talking about. There isn't tax reform, they're not closing tax loopholes as Democrats would want. They're not touching programs like Medicare or Social Security, which Republicans have often talked about needing to do. They're not doing major deficit reduction. They just undoing a little bit of the sequester and setting budget levels for a couple of years, if they actually get to an agreement here.

MARTIN: OK. That's the big question: How close are they?

KEITH: Word is they're actually pretty close. Though, as they like to say here in Washington, nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon. House Speaker John Boehner was very clear that he doesn't think there's a deal yet. And late in the week, a minority leader Nancy Pelosi said that Democrats wouldn't agree to a deal unless unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed were extended - which is sort of a new thing that hadn't been really discussed and threw things for a loop. Here she is.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: We are making a very clear statement that we cannot - cannot - support a budget agreement that does not include unemployment insurance in the budget or as a sidebar in order to move it all along.

MARTIN: So that looks to be a pretty significant sticking point now - though she later softened her stance a bit. And House Speaker John Boehner and Republicans aren't exactly saying no, we can't do this. What they're saying is it's a tough sell and that they'd be open to proposals - which isn't a yes, and which isn't a no.

So what happens if they don't reach a deal?

KEITH: Not much, actually happens immediately. That's because this budget deadline is sort of a false deadline. And the real deadline is January 15th. That's when the current stop-gap spending bill runs out. And so some time before January 15th, they're going to have to come up with something. It could either be just another stop-gap spending bill, or it could be this somewhat larger, still very tiny agreement with funding levels for the next couple of years for the government. And if they are able to reach an agreement, even though it's little tiny deal, in some ways it would be a big deal because for once Congress wouldn't be on this crisis-to-crisis treadmill. They could focus on other policies or job creation or something other than fighting about the budget, which is what they've been doing for years.

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith. Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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