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Downward deficit: How Patty Murray will negotiate the next budget crisis

Sen. Patty Murray during a 2012 speech Credit: Shawn Murphy/Flickr

The American outcry from last week’s budget debacle was intense: Dysfunctional D.C. We need to vote them all out. How did it come to this? Onto the next crisis.

How does Dec. 13 sound for the next showdown? Sure, we don’t hit the next debt ceiling until Feb. 7, but Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the Senate budget committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., this week launched a new budget conference charged with working out a budget deal by mid-December.

They will have their work cut out for them: The Washington Post published five things to know about the conference, including the fact that nine of its Republicans voted against the compromise that ended the government shutdown. More on the conference committee and Murray's role in a bit. First a quick review.

Despite disparate views about the budget impasse, a collective sigh of relief greeted morning newspaper readers on Thursday after an 11th hour deal in the U.S. Senate to avert what many expected to be a financial meltdown. The relief was as palpable and just as dense as Puget Sound fog.

The New York Times front page focused on the political gamesmanship: “Republicans back down in fiscal standoff.” The other NYT headline lamented the splintered Republican gambit: “Losing a lot to get little.” The Seattle Times published those New York Times stories under their own front page headline: “Out of jeopardy, but for how long?”

The Wall Street Journal took a different approach. Editors at the Journal shrugged: “Congress passes a debt bill.” The Journal also noted that businesses were voicing frustration with the GOP.

The Journal editors didn't snap at the bait of congressional antics. Instead, above the fold on the front page, they presented a large, data-rich and ominous graphic about the actual substance of the debate: the debt itself. The reader’s eye was drawn from the left side of the graph with its seemingly modest debt ceiling of $4.9 trillion in Clinton’s 1993 to the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling in Obama’s 2013.  The graphic looks like one side of Mount Rainier. It’s steep and dangerous. The following day, The New York Times ran a graphic showing the proximity of Republican and Democrat approaches on deficit reduction, except for health care.

Seeing the Journal's debt chart reminded me of the words this summer of former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, who came to town to preach the gospel of fiscal responsibility and federal debt reduction. Dripping with sarcasm and cynicism at what was still to come, Simpson said Americans were fixated on drama and hatred for politicians, not solutions and ideas.

As if making his point months later, a pundit this week equated the deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling with saving a patient who was very near death. But where’s the analysis of why the patient is dying? To use another morbid metaphor from public health, who’s looking upstream to see where all these dead bodies floating downstream are coming from? It's growing governent borrowing, stupid.

Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles would say it just that bluntly. They were the bipartisan co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. I’d suggest Northwest Republicans and Democrats dust off the Simpson-Bowles recommendations pronto. They outlined a thoughtful approach that balances the needs and concerns of both parties — discretionary and mandatory spending cuts, tax reform, social security reform and improving the process we all witnessed fall apart over the past two weeks. Former Republican Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici and former White House Budget Director and Federal Reserve Vice Chair Alice Rivlin have also published a bipartisan blueprint for deficit reduction that is worth studying.

These ideas are getting some attention from Washington's Sen. Murray. During a phone call Friday, her communications director Matt McAlvanah said Murray will use Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin as something of a litmus test for deficit reduction proposals. He acknowledged that Murray “looks for smart entitlement cuts.” It’s an open question (and a tough conversation) whether Democrats will agree with her, he said.

McAlvanah, and Murray’s spokesman on the budget committee, Eli Zupnick, argue that Murray has shown her willingness to reduce the deficit, but she and the Democrats also want to see openness from Republicans to raise revenues, though closing corporate loopholes were the only revenue-raisers mentioned.

While Murray's at the center of attention — her staff has noticed a definite increase in the past few days of reporters and lobbyists seeking insights about her priorities and background — there's another Northwest member of Congress who is also well positioned to help change the tone and substance of the debate. That's Spokane Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who holds a GOP leadership position as vice chair of House Republicans. A call and email to her office were not returned in time for this article.

Sources close to the new budget conference are quietly lowering expectations for what to expect out of the talks. Some reports have optimistically suggested a long-term deal is the aim. But those close to the talks caution that the members cannot solve every problem by the holidays. They will tackle sequestration, the automatic cuts to federal spending mandated in 2011 and still taking effect, and they will work on spending levels for next year. Long-term thinking is going to take more time.

Republicans believe Democrats are vulnerable politically because they want to avoid sequestration cuts. Democrats believe Republicans, especially Tea Party members, are vulnerable because Americans are seeking revenge for the government shutdown and near default. Everyone seems to agree the Republican Party has splintered into two parties, which makes it hard to know who can cut the next deal.

Asked what concessions to Republicans we might expect to see from Murray, one Democratic insider who preferred not to be identified couldn’t name one but instead noted that it’s been an imbalanced negotiation to date. "Democrats have said everything is on the table, but Republicans have not. Republicans need to put revenue on the table and then we’ll see."

From the sound of things, it’s a re-play of the talks that led to the sad spectacle of the past two weeks. 

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