By: Ledyard King, The Tennessean Washington Bureau
Not many people give the bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers appointed to forge a long-term budget agreement over the next two months much chance of success.
Diane Black is a little more optimistic.
The Republican congresswoman from Gallatin, named one of the negotiators on the conference committee, knows it won't be easy, especially in the aftermath of a 16-day partial government shutdown that inflamed tensions on both sides of the aisle.
But Black watched conservatives and liberals make progress this past year on the thorny issue of tax reform. She said the lawmakers negotiating a budget agreement may surprise skeptics when they begin meeting later this month.
"I don't want to set the expectation at any particular level since we have not met and talked about the details, but what I will tell you is that we can work together on these big issues," she said. "There is hopefulness that the Congress is ready and the American people are ready for us to work together."
Black is one of four House Republicans named to the panel. The group has until Dec. 13 to come up with an agreement on a budget for fiscal 2014, which began Oct. 1.
But it has the authority to go beyond that and lay the foundation for a long-term solution that some have called a "grand bargain." That could include a package of large debt-reduction proposals such as entitlement reforms, spending cuts, and tax increases.
For now, the federal government is operating on a spending plan that runs through Jan. 15. That temporary budget was approved as part of the deal Congress approved Wednesday that also extends the nation's debt ceiling through Feb. 7 and sets up the conference committee that includes Black, who voted against the deal.
The possibility of a grand bargain is "pure fantasy," and the chance that Democratic and Republican conferees will agree on even a one-year budget aren't much better, said Stan Collender, a federal budget expert with Quorvis Communications.
He said Republicans won't support tax increases and Democrats won't agree to major changes to entitlement programs without them. Collender said the two sides don't even agree on what the problem is, much less how to fix it.
"I'm old enough to remember the Vietnam peace talks where they spent months discussing the shape of the table before they would sit down, and that's kind of what's going to have to happen here," he said. "Does anybody really think that after months of distrust and after the exercise we just went through that suddenly everybody's going to sit down and put their arms around each other and sing 'Kumbaya'?"
Black declined to discuss specific proposals she plans to introduce or support. Previously, she voted for a plan authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to make structural changes to Medicare and Medicaid that Republicans say would restore solvency to those programs. Democrats say Ryan's plan would hurt seniors and the poor.
Black knows she almost certainly won't endorse a tax increase.
Taxes rose in January when Congress approved a comprehensive reform plan that raised revenues by more than $600 billion. Black opposed that deal and said her sentiments haven't changed.
"Revenue is not the problem here," she said. "It's our out-of-control spending that we just can't seem to get under control that is the problem."
Another member of the newly appointed budget-negotiating panel, Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, said taxes have to be on the table, underscoring the gulf between Democrats and Republicans on the panel.
"We very much hope that our Republican colleagues will agree to talk about revenue," Van Hollen, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Thursday on MSNBC. "After all, if you say you care about the deficit, if you say you care about the debt, surely you should be willing to close at least one tax loophole for the purpose of reducing the deficit. There are lots of corporate tax breaks that simply gum up the tax code."
Both sides must also decide how large the discretionary part of the budget should be.
Under sequestration, discretionary spending in fiscal 2014 is supposed to drop to about $967 billion — down from about $986 billion in fiscal 2013 — with cuts applied across the board.
Black and other Republicans want to maintain the sequestration spending cuts but give agencies, especially the Pentagon, greater latitude to spend more on priority programs.
Democrats want to increase the discretionary total to $1.058 trillion, arguing that further budget cuts would hamper the country's sluggish economic recovery.
The cuts do not apply to mandatory spending programs, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, who's been involved in on-and-off discussions with the White House on a grand bargain, doesn't expect the committee will come up with a "big deal." He's more interested in making sure any deal maintains the sequestration funding levels that have proven successful in holding down government growth.
"The fact is, it's the first time since 1955 and 1956 we've had two years in a row of less government spending," Corker said on CNBC Thursday. "Now what we need to do is look at what we've done with the sequester and make it more intelligent. And I think that's what the real focus is going to be over the next 90 days."
Contact Ledyard King at firstname.lastname@example.org