WASHINGTON - Congressional budget negotiators are zeroing in on a modest deal to keep the federal government operating while easing the grip of the mandatory automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.
With the clock ticking toward a Dec. 13 deadline to report to Congress, the bipartisan conference committee led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) is weighing a plan that would set spending levels for fiscal 2014 and 2015.
The goal is to avoid a train wreck like the one that caused the 16-day partial government shutdown in October. The shutdown ended when lawmakers agreed to a stopgap measure to fund the government for three months. That funding measure expires Jan. 15, the same day that $109.3 billion in sequestration cuts are due to kick in.
Those close to the talks caution that nothing is final yet - and everything could blow apart at any moment.
But so far, there's cautious optimism. Negotiators are considering a 2014 budget for discretionary items - those under Congress' control - that would spend at an annual rate of about $1 trillion, more than the $967 billion that conservative Republicans want but less than the $1.058 trillion Senate Democrats endorsed.
The budget leaders are crafting a plan to soften the blow of sequestration's across-the-board spending cuts by finding savings in other areas of the budget and by generating revenue through increasing some user fees. The federal government attaches these small fees on things that range from airline tickets to national parks usage.
That would allow the two parties to claim that their sacred cows were untouched: Democrats who balk at cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Republicans who won't accept tax increases.
They do generally agree that they want to spend more than the sequester would allow. Many in Congress maintain that the cuts are harming military preparedness and social programs.
"Chairman Ryan and I continue to talk, and I am hopeful that we can keep making progress and reach a bipartisan agreement," Murray said Wednesday. "I know that families in Washington state and across the country are looking to us to get something done to address the cuts from sequestration that are impacting the workers and communities around our military base, as well as critical investments in education, jobs, economic growth and medical research."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a conferee who's also the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, placed the odds of reaching a deal at 50-50.
"It's a jump ball," Van Hollen said Tuesday. "It could go either way."