Last Great Hope to Avert Another Stalemate: The 'Budget Conference'

A group of lawmakers tasked with hammering out a long-term budget deal met for the first time today, working under the prosaic name, the "budget conference."

Today's meeting of the 29 lawmakers - 15 Democrats and 14 Republicans - was a rarity on Capitol Hill as the Senate and House of Representatives have not gone to conference on the budget in years. The meeting didn't produce any agreements or concessions, but gave the group an opportunity to voice what direction they hope the conference will take as they try to prevent another fiscal crisis.

"The bar is pretty low right now. Let's see if we can clear it," said Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. "We'll restore confidence in our economy if we do that."

"We've got our work cut out for us. It's not going to be easy," he said.

"I believe that this bipartisan budget conference offers us the opportunity to rebuild some trust, find a path to compromise, and work together to create jobs and boost our fragile economy," said Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee. "It won't be easy. It will require both sides to step out of their comfort zone and ideological corners, and we won't be able to tackle every one of our nation's challenges in these few short weeks."

Ryan announced the group will meet again on Nov. 13, so in the meantime, here's a primer on what you need to know about the budget conference.

What is the budget conference?

The budget conference originated as part of the bi-partisan deal struck in October to re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling. It is tasked with reaching an agreement on a long-term budget agreement by Dec. 13. The deal also extended government funding until Jan. 15, 2014, and lifted the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, 2014.

Who is in the budget conference?

The budget negotiation team comprises 15 Democrats and 14 Republicans from the Senate and House of Representatives. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, are leading the conference, which includes appointed conferees from both sides of the aisle.

All members of the Senate Budget Committee are part of the budget conference along with seven members of the House of Representatives, including Ryan, Tom Cole, R-Okla., and Tom Price, R-Ga., Diane Black, R-Tenn., James Clyburn, D-S.C., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

What should we expect from the budget conference?

Expectations on Capitol Hill are pretty low, but the group's main goal is to establish a long-term budget deal to help ward off another budget and debt ceiling fight in 2014. Whether they will be able to do it by their Dec. 13 deadline or find a way to agree on a budget number is unclear, and most of the negotiations will occur behind closed doors, not at the open meetings

The most basic task the group has is to reach an agreement on its budget numbers. The Senate's budget sets funding for fiscal year 2014 at $1.058 trillion while the House's budget keeps funding at the sequestration levels of $967 billion.

But do the two sides agree on anything?

Yes and no. Both sides want to find a way to deal with sequestration, but they differ in how they want to do it.

Democrats want to end or replace the sequestration cuts, which went into effect as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, and Republicans think there are other ways to cut spending.

The BCA included cuts in discretionary spending that were "triggered" if Congress was unable to reach a deal on the budget and deficit reduction. A super-committee was formed to try to find an agreement, but it failed, causing the cuts to start last March.

If the budget conference can't strike a deal, a second round of sequestration cuts will take place on Jan. 15, cutting defense discretionary spending by $20 billion, something both sides don't want.

But how they replace sequestration is where the parties don't agree. Republicans want to see big changes to entitlement reform while Democrats will likely push for more tax revenue.

But there is one other thing they do agree on - this committee isn't anywhere close to reaching a grand bargain.

"I don't think we're going to do a grand bargain here. I would like to. I know many of us would," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said today at the first budget conference meeting.

"We're not going to have a grand bargain in the near future," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told a Nevada public radio station last week. "I hope that we can do some stuff to get rid of sequestration and go on to do some sensible budgeteering."