As part of the deal that ended the partial government shutdown in October, 29 lawmakers are supposed to come up with a long-term budget deal by the middle of next month. They meet today, led by two people who could not be more different: Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington State and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: At six-foot-one, Republican Paul Ryan looms over Democrat Patty Murray by more than a foot. He's known as a budget geek, but managed to get a photo spread in Time Magazine last year doing bicep curls in a T-shirt. It was titled "Paul Ryan: All Pumped Up for His Closeup." When the Wisconsin congressman was named the Republican nominee for vice president in 2012, it was clear - here was someone who savored working big crowds.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: Our rights come from nature and God, not from governments.


RYAN: That's right. That's who we are. That's how we built this country.

CHANG: Across from Ryan now at the budget negotiating table is a former preschool teacher who's never been one to hog the microphone. Years ago, a state lawmaker once called her just a mom in tennis shoes, and she turned that diss into a campaign theme when she first ran for the Senate in 1992.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She began as a long shot to insiders. But by spring, even the skeptical could see that Patty Murray was different. The once-dismissed mom in tennis shoes is fighting for the real people of Washington.

CHANG: After two decades in the Senate, Murray has built a reputation for being unassuming, practical and extremely hardworking - and when I sat down with her earlier this year, she said that being a woman can be an advantage in Congress, especially when it comes to something as contentious as the budget.

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: Well, you know, I don't want to put the men senators down. There's some really great men senators here, but I do see women working collaboratively and listening more to people to try to find their core common ground to get something done.

CHANG: But there isn't much hope that even a collaborative nature can bridge the ocean that divides Democrats and Republicans on taxing and spending. Because what's on the table are some of the most recently fiercely defended elements in both parties' ideologies. Republicans want to see real cuts to entitlement programs - like Social Security and Medicare. Democrats want to increase revenue by raising taxes. Ryan already said no way to that at the first budget conference committee meeting.

RYAN: So I want to say this from the get go, if we look at this conference as an argument about taxes, we're not going to get anywhere.

STAN COLLENDER: Well, the first thing everybody has to understand is that the so-called grand bargain - the big deal - is a pure fantasy.

CHANG: Stan Collender has studied budget fights for years. What's his prediction about what's going to happen this time? Not much. He says maybe lawmakers will agree to undo some of the across-the-board spending cuts, known as the sequester. Both sides hate those cuts, which isn't surprising, Collender says, because the sequester was supposed to be the worst possible alternative.

COLLENDER: It turns out it's the worst possible alternative except compared to everything else. That is, it's actually the best alternative if the only other options are to cut entitlements - that is Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid - or to increase revenues, that is, taxes.

CHANG: Even if a big deal were in the works, it wouldn't happen now, not in this committee.

ROSS BAKER: I suppose you could call it legislative foreplay.


BAKER: I know you're a family radio station.


CHANG: Ross Baker at Rutgers University says in the end, any agreement Murray and Ryan come up with could still be rejected by either of their chambers.

BAKER: I think as much as they enjoy the respect of their colleagues, none of this is personal. It really does come down to the very, very significant differences between what it means to be a Democrat and what is means to be a Republican.

CHANG: And ultimately, it will be up to the president and the two top leaders in both chambers to make any real deal, if there's even one to be made.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.



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