Finally, McConnell Utters ‘Negotiation,’ and Budget Talks Inch Forward

Put the countdown clocks aside. Make your October plans to visit national parks. Take the word “furlough” out of your vocabulary. There will not be a government shutdown this year.

This was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s parting gift last week to Congress and the public as senators drifted home to their various August recess activities. In more strenuous terms than ever, he restated, “There will not be a government shutdown. …At some point we’ll negotiate the way forward.”

His statement sets in motion the end game for 2016 appropriations that will play out in September. At issue is the level of funding for national defense versus the spending allotments for domestic agencies like the Education Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and even the Department of Homeland Security. The entire government is chafing under mandatory budget caps put in place four years ago to resolve a fiscal cliff standoff. The only question now is how to relieve those austere limits in a way that everyone can live with.

Democrats want equal raises on the defense and domestic sides of the ledger. Republicans, so far, have said only that they will accept increases for the Department of Defense, to the tune of about $40 billion.

But the GOP defense hawks, with whom McConnell sympathizes, don’t really like the defense-only solution. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is among a group of vocal Republicans opposing the budget caps writ large. He also has expressed sympathy for Democrats’ requests for a little more leeway on the domestic side. “This madness must stop,” he said, last month at a hearing.

Herein lies the likely answer when Congress returns: Democrats give a little. Republicans give a little. Hawks like McCain say an equal increase for domestic programs is unreasonable. They believe defense comes first. Parse their statements a little closer and you find an opening. Only a few hardcore budget cutters like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) say that the 2011 budget caps should not ever be lifted on the domestic side. Left unsaid in budget statements from others like McCain is that even though domestic agencies are second priority, they might need a little extra scratch too. The September assignment for the negotiators, then, is to decide how much each side gets.

“Repeat. There will not be a government shutdown,” McConnell said last week.

McConnell has said this before. He has been saying it ever since Senate Democrats threw down the gauntlet in the spring, stating that they would block any government spending bill that doesn’t include equal raises for domestic and defense programs.

But, in typical McConnell fashion, he frustrated Democrats and reporters alike by refusing to go any farther than that. The senior senator from Kentucky is a man who negotiates on his own terms. For months he ignored Democrats’ repeated demands that budget talks begin in the summer months before a Sept. 30 deadline loomed too close. “We will fund the government,” he said simply, when Democrats sent him a letter in June asking for a budget conference.

McConnell finally went a little bit further last week when he acknowledged that the divided government will require negotiations between Republicans and Democrats.

“Good!” remarked an obviously surprised Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), moments later, when informed by a reporter of McConnell’s statement. Schumer, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, has been the loudest and most colorful of the Democratic budget needlers. He is expected to be a key player in the negotiations, although GOP aides have said his public criticisms of Senate Republican leaders hasn’t helped the forthcoming working relationship.

But blame goes in both directions. Both Republicans and Democrats this summer have accused the other party of angling for a government shutdown as they staked out their positions on what the 2016 spending should look like. But last week, before they retreated to their home states to meet with constituents and assess their own political landscapes, the finger-pointing had clearly died down. The deal-making era has begun.

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