Amid Budget Gridlock, Congress Contemplates Next Ryan-Murray

Stringent budget cuts looming once again on the fiscal horizon have lawmakers hoping for an encore to the deal brokered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that has allowed Congress to circumvent similar spending limits for the past two years.

Only this time it’s not obvious who should replace Ryan and Murray at the negotiating table.

“What we’re all agreed upon is that we do need a sequel to Ryan-Murray, and we need it sooner rather than later,” Sen. Barabara Mikulski (D-Md.) said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing May 21. “This funding ceiling is just very, very Spartan.”

The lack of a prominent pair of negotiators concerns many budget-watchers and raises the prospect that yet another massive must-pass deal will fall on House and Senate leaders to solve.

The Ryan-Murray deal, struck between the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees back in 2013, allowed for appropriations in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 to surpass limits set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 — limits that were trigged when lawmakers couldn’t reach a budget accord that year. Without congressional action to set them aside, the caps will once again come into effect for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Both Republicans and Democrats want to see some spending increased; the GOP wants a boost in defense dollars, while Democrats and the White House want an equal increase in non-defense discretionary spending. But Ryan and Murray have moved on from their perches atop the budget committees, and it’s not clear who will — or can — occupy their seats at the negotiating table.

“There’s not really a formal process in place yet for negotiations,” said Marc Goldwein, who worked as a budget analyst for the so-called Super Committee that ultimately failed to reach a budget agreement in 2011. “It’s not really clear who the negotiators will be.”

Republican control of Congress means current Budget Committee chairmen Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) will likely play a prominent role. The return to regular order also gives Senate and House Appropriations Committee chairmen Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) a say.

Still, with only 54 votes in the Senate and a number of fiscal hawks balancing their Senate duties with presidential campaigns, Republicans know it’s not entirely up to them.

“Democrats are going to have to be involved, as is the White House,” said Jim Dyer, a Republican strategist who managed legislative portfolios for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

And it’s still too early to count the original collaborators out of the picture completely.

As both a member of minority leadership and the Senate Appropriations Committee, Murray is well placed to work on a budget deal when the details become clearer. And a spokesman for Ryan said the Ways and Means Committee chairman would be happy to pitch in if congressional leaders start working on a negotiation.

Yet the GOP’s commitment to pushing through funding bills that mostly adhere to BCA spending limits – and to the budget resolution passed earlier this year – has frozen discussion of a budget deal in the near future, said William Hoagland, a vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center who worked on the congressional budget under then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). A grand bargain like Ryan-Murray, he said, would be a tacit admission that Congress is more likely to be forced to pursue an omnibus spending deal at the last minute, rather than passing all 12 appropriations bills individually.

“Nobody wants to talk about a Ryan-Murray deal,” Hoagland said.

But Democrats in Congress say the appropriations process is as good as dead anyway. The White House has repeatedly threatened to veto measures that stick to sequester-level spending limits, and Senate Democrats on Thursday made clear they would block appropriations bills that stick to sequester caps.

“We know none of these bills are likely to be signed into law by the president as they are currently written,” said Rep. Nita Lowey at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing last week. “We can deal with that fact now, or deal with it again over the holidays—but we will have to deal with it.”

Some observers suspect House Republican leaders are just going through the motions to appease the rank and file before sitting down to negotiate a budget deal that raises BCA caps.

“Boehner has understood from early this winter that he was going to have to go through this charade to get the latitude to do what he needs to do,” said Scott Lilly, a longtime House Appropriations Committee staffer now at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “He knows what he needs to do, but the only way he can get there is to spend 9 months putzing around with unrealistic allocations.”

Even some Republicans in Congress openly acknowledge that going through the appropriations motions will only get Congress so far.

“We’re going to have a spending discussion,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said last month. “The question is whether we have it now or whether we have it later in the appropriations process.”

The stagnation sets the stage for potential budget negotiations sometime before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30 — and the prospect of an omnibus measure that includes temporary fixes for other must-pass measures like extensions of the Highway Trust Fund and the Federal Aviation Administration, or an increase in the federal debt ceiling.

And that points to a more senior group of possible negotiators: Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and either Mikulski, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or Reid’s likely successor, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“The leadership is going to have to supervise this thing,” Dyer said.