Time to negotiate

Published 10:07 am Wednesday, October 23, 2013

As a Senate candidate in 2012, I repeatedly heard the critique: “the Democratic Senate hasn’t even done a budget.” This critique was accurate — Democrats decided that it was better politics to just blast a House Republican budget than create one of their own that could be a target.

After election in November 2012, I was a little chagrined to be assigned to the Budget Committee. I’ve done a lot of budgets as a mayor and governor — why be on a committee known for not doing budgets?

But along with other members, including Mark Warner and a new chair, Patty Murray of Washington, we buckled down and passed a Senate budget on March 23 after a marathon floor session. The House passed its budget the same week. As a newcomer, I was excited to be part of a return to a regular and orderly budget process.

Boy was I naïve!

The natural next step after passage was for the House and Senate budgets to be put into a conference committee for dialogue, negotiation and an ultimate compromise that would be the basis for appropriations bills passed in time to ensure continuing government operations.

But, the budget conference never started. The House, and a handful of senators, decided to block the conference from starting.

No conference, no compromise. No compromise, no budget. The House didn’t want compromise or a budget; it wanted a confrontation. The last weeks of shutdown and near default are the fruits of that effort.

Senate Democrats were wrong to skip an annual budget for four years. And House Republicans were wrong to shut down the government of the greatest nation on Earth. We’ve re-opened, but our people, businesses, economy and reputation have needlessly suffered along the way.

The key to the bipartisan agreement we passed last week, in my view, is the instruction for the House and Senate to finally start a budget conference and work in earnest for two months to find a deal.

We should have started this in March, but finally we’ll be at the table listening, negotiating and trying to find compromise. No more gimmicks — just get the House and Senate budget committees to sit down in the manner contemplated by our budget laws and see whether we can reach a deal.

The negotiation won’t be easy. The House budget leaves sequester cuts in place.

The Senate Budget replaces sequester with a 50/50 mix of targeted spending cuts and revenue through closing tax loopholes. There are different points of view about the Affordable Care Act, infrastructure investment, Medicare reforms, deficit reduction, early childhood education and many other issues.

And longtime Capitol Hill folks are skeptical about any positive outcome. But there’s no substitute for a budget conference. The status quo alternative — no dialogue — guarantees no deal.

So the real work starts now, around a conference table. The country will see whether a divided Congress can put the country before narrow partisan interest and finally, after many years, agree on a budget. This is Government 101.

TIM KAINE represents Virginia in the United States Senate. This column first appeared yesterday in The Virginian-Pilot.