WASHINGTON – Negotiators on Capitol Hill are gathering to discuss ways of easing indiscriminate spending cuts slamming the Pentagon and domestic agencies alike.
The talks Wednesday in a dysfunctional Washington come after a sustained period of warfare among the main protagonists — Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate and Republicans leading the House — is yielding to a moment of smaller-scale talks between lieutenants of top House and Senate leaders.
The idea of a “grand bargain” blending tax increases with politically difficult savings from popular benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare seems to be off the table.
Lawmakers generally are trying to put together a smaller-scale deal that would ease across-the-board cuts known as sequestration that are hitting federal agencies.
Democrats are still pressing for new revenues but are running into predictable opposition from GOP conservatives.
Wednesday’s meeting will mostly involve speechmaking rather than real negotiating, but a consensus could emerge about limiting the scope of the talks to finding ways to deal with the across-the-board spending cuts.
Democrats are eager to ease cuts to domestic programs like Head Start preschools, education grants to local schools and infrastructure projects.
Republicans are especially worried about cuts to the Pentagon.
“We might as well shut down the Pentagon because it’ll basically hollow them out,” House Armed Service Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said.
The sequestration cuts began to bite in March, but an upcoming round of cuts will hit the Defence Department even harder. The Pentagon and domestic agencies have found ways to manage the automatic cuts through bookkeeping tricks and one-time manoeuvrs, but worries are running high that the round coming next year will be far worse.
Washington endured a lengthy power struggle this month over keeping the government open and raising its borrowing cap. Conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, advocated shutting down the government to try to force Democrats to defund Obama’s health care law, but the manoeuvr backfired with the public.
Expectations for the talks are limited at best, given the acrimonious history, but both sides have an incentive to reach a bargain that would win favour among both GOP defence hawks and Democratic defenders of domestic programs.
“I’m always optimistic,” Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said. “Do I think it will happen? I don’t know.”