U.S. budget negotiations enter final stage in Congress -aides

WASHINGTON Thu Dec 5, 2013 12:21pm EST

WASHINGTON Dec 5 (Reuters) - U.S. congressional negotiators on Thursday aimed to put the finishing touches on a two-year budget deal that would avoid another federal shutdown next month and suspend some across-the-board spending cuts set to hit military and other domestic programs, congressional sources said.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray and House of Representatives Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan were trying to seal a deal before a Dec. 13 deadline.

Their hope is that the House would approve the emerging deal before an end-of-year recess that is supposed to begin on Dec. 13. If the House, led by Republicans, were to approve the measure, it would be up to the Democratic-controlled Senate to sign off too, probably the following week.

But first, Ryan and Murray had difficult issues to resolve, including the size of benefit cuts to federal workers' retirement programs and possible fee increases for air travelers.

Both measures would be part of a broader effort to either raise non-tax revenues or cut costs in order to ease some of the automatic spending cuts known as "sequestration" that began earlier this year.

"The last few steps are the hardest," a Senate Democratic leadership aide said of the Murray-Ryan negotiations.

A House Republican aide said that the House-Senate budget plan would provide a top-line spending number of around $1 trillion in fiscal 2014 as well as 2015 for programs and agencies that Congress funds each year, ranging from the military to national parks.

That top-line number would allow Senate and House appropriators to then parcel out funding to the various federal agencies for the rest of this fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, as well as the one that starts on Oct. 1, 2014.

BROKEN PROCESS

Lawmakers, exhausted from three years of non-stop budget fights culminating in a 16-day shutdown of many federal agencies in October, hope a deal would bring some sanity to the broken budget process. The string of budget crises has contributed to historically low public approval ratings of Congress.

Among the non-tax revenues considered in the talks is a contribution of around $10 billion from an increase in airport security fees paid by air travelers. Airlines for America, an industry trade group, estimates the Transportation Security Administration fee would double to $5 per ticket if the proposal is adopted, said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the group.

"We think this is really a wrong-headed move, especially when air travelers are already so heavily taxed," Medina said, adding that the trade group handed out air sickness bags at Reagan National Airport this week as part of a campaign to stop the fee increase.

Also unclear was whether any deal would contain some unrelated fiscal measures that tend to arise every year. Those could include a temporary "patch" to prevent a scheduled reduction in payments to doctors treating elderly patients in the Medicare program, or an extension of federal jobless benefits that are set to expire at the end of this month for the long-term unemployed.

The White House piled pressure on Republicans on Thursday to extend the benefits with a report that estimated a failure to take action could lead to a loss of 240,000 jobs in 2014.

About 1.3 million Americans stand to lose jobless benefits on Jan. 1 unless Congress agrees on an extension

If Ryan and Murray do reach a deal, it could draw opposition from liberal Democrats, who do not support subjecting federal workers to additional budget savings, as well as from conservative Republicans, who will not get the long-term cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs that they have been seeking.

A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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