* Key negotiators set to meet; hope for 'handshake' deal
* Opposition from right and left could emerge on key issues
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Dec 9 A budget deal aimed at
avoiding a U.S. government shutdown on Jan. 15 and relieving
federal agencies of some indiscriminate spending cuts that are
set to begin with the new year could emerge in Congress on
Tuesday, congressional aides said on Monday.
Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican
Representative Paul Ryan are scheduled to meet on Tuesday with
the goal of finalizing a deal, according to aides who asked not
to be identified.
While Ryan and Murray have not yet struck a deal and
negotiations could still fall apart, one of the aides said,
"They are very close. You could maybe see a handshake come out
of that meeting" on Tuesday.
If such a deal is reached, the specifics could then be given
to senators who are holding closed-door meetings during lunches
that Democrats and Republicans hold separately on Tuesdays.
For the past several weeks, Murray and Ryan, who head their
chambers' respective budget panels, have been privately trying
to reach a two-year budget deal that aims to end the
Republican-Democratic brinkmanship over fiscal affairs that led
to October's 16-day partial federal government shutdown.
According to aides, Ryan and Murray have been discussing an
unambitious plan that would suspend some of the automatic
spending cuts, known in Washington as "sequestration," that hit
the Pentagon and other agencies hard.
In return for suspending some of the spending cuts, some
revenues would be raised by cutting federal employees retirement
benefits and raising some fees, such as those paid by air
Democrats have been resisting cuts to pension benefits for
federal workers, and they also have been pushing for extending
federal benefits for the long-term unemployed set to expire at
the end of this month.
Republicans, meanwhile are balking at easing the automatic
spending cuts, arguing that they have been effective in holding
back Washington's spending that has contributed to a record
$17.2 trillion in national debt that keeps rising every day.
INCREASED PENSION CONTRIBUTIONS
On Monday, a senior Senate Democratic aide said that
workers would not have to increase their own contributions
toward their pensions as much as previously thought.
The Congressional Budget Office had previously estimated
that if each employee contributed an additional 1.2 percent of
their salaries to get the same retirement annuities, it would
save the government $19 billion over 10 years.
The fate of the long-term unemployment insurance extension
If Murray and Ryan can settle on a budget package, which
would do nothing to rein in deficits over the long run, it
likely would take support from both parties to get the measure
passed in the House and Senate in coming days.
The core of the deal they have been discussing entails
setting spending levels at around $1 trillion for each of 2014
and 2015 fiscal years for government agencies and discretionary
programs ranging from education to the military. That's a slight
increase from the $967 billion level expected for fiscal 2014,
which began Oct. 1, after the across-the-board sequestration
But some conservative House Republicans are expected to
oppose even a small increase in planned spending levels because
they view the sequestration cuts as the only tangible budget
savings that Congress has achieved in recent years.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has expressed
"There is a lot of respect for Paul Ryan, and everyone will
give him a fair chance to make his case," said a House
Republican aide. "But beyond that, among the very conservative
members there is a lot of skepticism about breaking the
A large group of conservative House Republicans has written
a letter to House Speaker John Boehner urging him to maintain
the automatic spending cuts and the tough budget caps that would
keep spending at $967 billion through the current fiscal year.
"We encourage you to allow a vote as soon as practicable on
a full-year ... funding bill at the levels established in law by
the Budget Control Act," they wrote.