Dec. 13, 2013, is not a hard and fast deadline in Congress. There are no fiscal cliffs to fall off of or national debt to default on. Yet, in less than a month, after years of economic impasse, Republicans and Democrats are presumed to have put differences aside and are supposed to unveil a bipartisan budget plan.
In an effort to see how far they can get, most of the negotiating has moved from the public budget conference room to behind closed doors where Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are in daily communication and are looking for ways to cobble together a deal, privately.
With just weeks to go, however, members outside the committee are voicing concerns an all-out budget deal or even a smaller plan to replace the billions in mandatory spending cuts known as sequestration, could be too much to expect for fiscal year 2014.
"I don't think we'll ever get a budget deal done," says Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. "I would be shocked, but I've been wrong before."
There's reason to be dubious a deal can be done. Murray and Ryan are starting with their respective budgets as blueprints and they are vastly different. While Murray has said repeatedly she would like to close some of the corporate tax loopholes that can be found in 75,000 pages of tax code to reduce the deficit, Republicans remain largely opposed to addressing any kind of tax reform in the budget conference.
Meanwhile, Republicans would like to trim entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, which they see as major drivers of the debt. Murray has indicated she's open to that, but only if revenue is put on the table.
Even members on the committee acknowledge a bipartisan coalition is meeting separately to pick up the pieces in case Ryan and Murray cannot find common ground.
"There are some informal discussions going on among a group of Republican and Democratic members of the committee, but it is a delicate situation because we don't want to undercut Chairman Murray," Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told U.S. News during an interview in his Washington Senate office. "We don't want to be sort of renegades, we don't want to be pulling the rug out, but on the other hand...we are trying to produce an 'if all else fails' situation."
During a public Senate budget conference meeting Wednesday, King introduced his own compromise bill in the committee, a combination of entitlement cuts, a lower corporate tax rate and new revenue.
"I am a former governor. I like doing things and I have been frustrated. I think this conference is so important for reasons that go beyond just the budget," King says. "This is important in terms of public confidence in this institution."
King is not the only one who is cautiously trotting ahead. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, also an independent, also said in an interview Thursday that groups were meeting privately just in case.. Although, he says he remains "cautiously optimistic" something could be done if Republicans were willing to budge on taxes.
"People say things, but Republicans also said they were going to keep the government shut down unless they got rid of Obamacare," Sanders said. "The truth is that the two sides are not that far apart."
Republicans and Democrats both agree the $109 billion in sequester cuts planned for 2014 are an irresponsible way to slash the budget. The Congressional Budget Office suggested Wednesday that more targeted cuts would be better for economic growth. If the cuts remain in place slashes to domestic spending will be largely the same as in 2013 when Congress made $85 billion in total cuts. The slice coming off of the defense budget, however, will be $20 billion more than it was in 2013. Democrats are optimistic that might make defense-hawk Republicans more eager negotiators.
But some Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who sits on the budget conference, argue "sequestration is working."