Senate Talks May Lead to Major Budget Deal this Fall

At least a dozen Republican senators are regularly meeting with President Obama’s top aides over a possible budget deal that may happen this fall, according to reports in National Journal and Politico. There have been four or five meetings in the past six weeks, but the talks are still at the "embryonic" stage, according to participants.

The talks do not include members of the Senate Republican leadership, but are reportedly being conducted with the blessing of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Republican leader. The talks reportedly include:

  • Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
  • Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
  • Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
  • Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)
  • Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND)
  • Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH)
  • Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
  • Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN)

Corker and McCain were among a faction of Republican senators that recently helped broker an agreement with Senate Democrats over nominations that prevented the Democrats from changing the Senate's filibuster rules.

Other participants in the budget talks may also include Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), a Senate moderate who has kept a lower profile heading into her reelection campaign next year. They may also include Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a conservative maverick who has clashed with the anti-tax crusader, Grover Norquist, and was among those who dined with President Obama earlier this year during the president's "charm offensive" with members of Congress.

Many other Republican senators have also been wavering in their support of GOP-proposed spending cuts, choosing instead to support Democratic spending bills this summer.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough is apparently leading the discussions on behalf of the administration with the support of OMB Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell. They have made it clear to Republicans that the president's offer from December — which includes $600 billion in new tax revenue and $400 billion in Medicare and other health care mandatory cuts — still stands.

Republicans reportedly want mandatory cuts but oppose the president's proposed cuts in Medicare, arguing that they do not address the program's long-term "structural" imbalances. However, McCain and Graham are reportedly open to Democratic demands for new tax revenues in return for canceling sequestration for the defense programs that most concern them.

The administration is hoping to strike a deal in the Senate first. The administration hopes this would then place pressure on the House to go along, particularly in the face of a possible government shutdown or debt ceiling crisis. The current debt ceiling limit is expected to be reached in late October or early November.

While Democratic congressional leaders reportedly are open to a deal, the politics on the House side remain a challenge. According to Politico analysts Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen, House Republicans see little reason to sign off on any agreement that both raises taxes and also angers seniors with entitlement cuts. "Can you imagine Boehner and his troops heading into the 2014 midterm elections dominated by conservative activists having to explain, not one, but two increases?" they wrote.

Conservative organizations like the Club for Growth have been warning GOP legislators to expect a primary challenge if they support a deal that raises taxes.

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