By Ken Berry, Correspondent
Will members of Congress be toasting each other with eggnog this year? As the holidays draw near, members of the House and Senate are reportedly wrapping up the first successful budget deal in two years. Negotiators hope to send the package to both houses for approval before closing up shop December 13.
But don't think holiday cheer has closed the great divide in our nation's capital. The agreement isn't expected to address tax reform measures, revise health care or retirement programs, or significantly reduce spending cuts mandated by the federal sequester. Democrats and Republicans may simply arrange to keep the government operating while they "agree to disagree."
If a budget agreement isn't reached, funding for federal agencies would be cut off on January 15, 2014. Back in October, the government was forced to shut down for sixteen days under similar circumstances.
Details of the deal remain cloudy as the key negotiators – House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) – work behind the scenes. The two are heading up the twenty-nine-member committee that was tasked with funding government agencies through the end of the end of the 2014 fiscal year. (The government's 2014 fiscal year runs from October 1, 2013, to September 30, 2014.) Ryan and Murray are expected to bypass the committee and present their budget straight to Congress this week.
According to several reports, the basic deal that's in place would allocate roughly $1.015 trillion to agency spending in 2014 and 2015, prematurely raising the budget to its target for the 2016 fiscal year. To make up for the difference, the negotiators are focusing on generating $65 billion more through various policies, including reductions in pensions for federal employees and higher security fees for airline passengers.
GOP leaders are also seeking to put a sizable dent in deficits projected to exceed $6 trillion over the next decade. But the deal worked out by Ryan and Murray reportedly doesn't reduce the federal debt, which has now reached epic proportions. And any mitigation of the federal sequester is likely to be minimal.
Of course, there's no guarantee that even a stopgap measure will be embraced by a contentious Congress. Another stalemate could occur if some lawmakers dig in their heels or use the budget debate as an excuse for airing other pet peeves.
And what about all the talk about comprehensive tax reform? The prospects appear to have dimmed. Put that one on your holiday wish list for next year.