Progress emerges in U.S. budget talks; Murray sees path to deal

Richard Cowan and Caren Bohan
Murray walks to a Senate Democratic caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington
U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) (C) walks to a Senate Democratic caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, October 15, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Richard Cowan and Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Signs of progress began to emerge in U.S. budget talks on Tuesday, as top Senate Democratic negotiator Patty Murray said that she sees a path toward an agreement to ease automatic "sequester" spending cuts.

Murray, asked if there was now a path forward in her talks with her counterpart, Republican Representative Paul Ryan, said: "I believe there is."

The lawmakers are racing against a December 13 deadline for a deal, as Republican resistance to including new tax revenues continued to be a sticking point, according to a Democrat on the negotiating committee headed by Murray and Ryan.

President Barack Obama also voiced some optimism when he told a Wall Street Journal conference that he does not foresee a repeat in January of the "crisis" seen in October, when the federal government was shut down for 16 days and a debt default was narrowly averted.

"I'd like to believe that the Republicans recognize that was not a good strategy and we're probably better off with a system where that threat is not there on a perpetual basis," Obama said.

On January 15, funds for many government activities will be exhausted. Without a budget deal by then, another government shutdown could occur.

Senator Murray, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee declined to elaborate on any possible consensus in the talks but said that the two were working toward a small deal.

Her comments echoed positive sentiments expressed by some Republican and Democratic aides, as well as by a fellow member of the budget-negotiating panel, Senator Angus King, an independent.

King told reporters it was his impression the regular meetings between Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Murray were yielding progress in the talks. But he added, "My understanding is there are major issues outstanding, the principal one being revenues."

Murray and other Democrats on the 29-member budget panel are seeking revenues from the closure of tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations to replace part of the sequester cuts, which are due take a $91 billion bite out of funding for government agencies and discretionary programs next year.

Republicans have refused to consider such tax hikes and want to pay for any easing of the sequester with spending cuts on federal benefits programs.

A spokesman for Ryan, of Wisconsin, declined to comment on the talks.

Ryan and Murray have been in contact daily since the negotiating panel's second public meeting last week, a senior Democratic aide said.

"They wouldn't be having these continued conversations and they wouldn't be continuing to work if they didn't see some path to a deal," the aide said.

A House Republican aide also said Ryan had told some lawmakers in private conversations that he was close to a deal with Murray. But the aide did not provide any details.

The next round of across-the-board spending cuts known as "sequestration" are set to begin January 15, the same date that federal government funding expires again.

MCCONNELL'S URGINGS

The positive sentiments also came as Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, on Tuesday urged House Republicans to stand together in favor of keeping the sequester cuts in place with a $967 billion discretionary spending level for fiscal 2014 that began October 1.

Many Republicans have said that if the budget talks fail, they would simply keep this spending level in place, even if it means accepting bigger cuts to military spending. This would be preferable to any new revenues, they say.

But the party is beginning to splinter over the sequester cuts, indicating that there may not be enough Republican votes to approve the lower spending level of $967 billion. Democrats want to return to the pre-sequester level of $1.058 trillion for the current fiscal year.

An inability of Congress to approve a 2014 budget at the $967 billion level could be providing an incentive for Murray and Ryan to forge a substitute deal.

McConnell's pitch in a closed-door meeting received push back from some House Republicans, including Republican Representative Scott Rigell, whose Virginia district is home to many naval installations in the Norfolk area that would suffer big cuts.

"Congressman Rigell did speak with the senator to make clear his views that the combination of sequester and continuing resolutions are damaging our military," said Rigell spokeswoman Kim Mosser Knapp.

And just hours after McConnell spoke to House Republicans, some of his own Senate Republicans also expressed their opposition to the scheduled spending cuts.

Five Senate Republicans joined 28 Democratic senators in a letter to Senate Budget Committee leaders urging robust funding for National Institutes of Health medical research. The first round of automatic spending cuts, which went into effect early this year, cut NIH funding by $1.55 billion, resulting in 640 fewer research projects being awarded, the 33 senators said.

(Additional reporting and writing by David Lawder; Editing by Philip Barbara)