Congress gears up for major budget talks with White House

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Congressional leaders are gearing up to begin budget talks with the White House aimed at setting federal budget outlines for the next two years in the hopes of averting another government shutdown threat in December.

The House and Senate are moving toward passage of a funding bill that will stave off a federal government shutdown when the fiscal year expires Wednesday night. The plan will extend current spending levels through Dec. 11.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday that he and departing Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have discussed with President Obama the prospect of starting budget talks, and “we expect them to start very soon.” He added that he hopes to be able to “settle on a top line for both years” — fiscal years 2016 and 2017 — so that next year Congress can return to the regular process of passing spending bills for various agencies under an agreed-upon overall budget target.

McConnell said that this year, Democrats objected to spending bills drafted under existing tight budget caps — known as sequestration — because they want more spending for domestic programs. Republicans are seeking more defense spending than the current caps allow.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the “Republican leader has already conceded that budget negotiations will crack the budget caps” and added that getting a two-year deal “would be wonderful.” Reid said there is “stuff going on — at the staff level” to get the talks started, and “if there are any talks I’ll be invited.”

Democrats have been asking for several months for broad budget talks to convene. “Given the number of critical deadlines that are before us, it is essential that serious, bipartisan negotiations commence well before the December 11th date,” said Drew Hamill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “We are glad that Senator McConnell has agreed to come to the table rather than waiting until the very last minute.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday  “I would expect that in the weeks ahead we’ll have more of a discussion about how Democrats and Republicans in Congress can work together to make sure that we adequately fund both our national security and economic priorities, while of course taking the necessary steps to prevent a government shutdown in an unnecessary injection of volatility into the national economy.”

These talks are likely to be a rerun of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations at the end of 2012. Any negotiations on a spending bill will likely have to include a wide range of contentious issues, such as funding for highway construction and extending billions of dollars worth of tax cuts. Congress also needs to again raise the federal debt limit this fall, which could be included in the same negotiations.

The process is complicated by the fact that Boehner announced last week he is resigning from Congress effective Oct. 30, and Republicans in the House are scrambling to choose a new leadership team. Nevertheless, Reid said he hoped the parties could reach agreement before Boehner leaves.

Paul Singer

Contributing: David Jackson