Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he doubts a fiscal deal can be struck — or even a framework secured — before Congress' late-summer break. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
The onetime target of early August for passing sweeping fiscal legislation is slowly being replaced by a consensus that striking a “grand bargain” could prove difficult.
Several Republican senators — whom President Obama continues to court over a grand bargain — contended this year that a deal would have to be in place before lawmakers left for the August recess. With 2014 midterm congressional elections set to kick into high gear soon, their plan was to do the so-called “big deal” as soon as possible.
That timeline has proven overly optimistic. That’s because it could take months to craft a package of spending cuts, entitlement reforms and tax hikes both Republicans and Democrats will agree to, according to senators involved in the talks.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Defense News last week he doubts a fiscal deal can be struck — or even a framework secured — before its late-summer break.
“I wouldn’t say August recess, I’d say the fall,” McCain said. “I would hope this year would be a better time frame.”
Like other sectors affected by the twin decade-spanning $500 billion cuts to planned defense and domestic spending, the US defense sector is pushing for a grand bargain with at least $1.2 trillion in additional deficit reduction moves. Only a debt-paring package of that size would lessen or turn off the cuts, which kicked in March 1.
On Capitol Hill, some senators and aides now worry the sliding timetable could set talks on a parallel path with work on hyper-partisan issues like gun control, immigration reform and the debt ceiling, causing the big fiscal deal to again fall victim to political squabbling.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, one of more than a dozen Senate Republicans Obama has been courting in pursuit of a grand bargain, told Defense News in late March that whatever the two sides are able to come up with needs to be in place by the time Congress leaves for its August recess.
“I think the next four months are really important because of the momentum that we have,” Corker said.
But last week, Corker and other key senators indicated more time is needed.
“I don’t think it has to happen by August,” Corker said during a brief May 7 interview. “Obviously, that would be better for our country if we had something done by August. … I’d prefer to get it done in the next 30 days. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
McCain said the chamber’s performance in coming weeks on an issue both parties favor — immigration reform — will be a harbinger of things to come on a fiscal deal.
“In this place, success breeds success,” he said. “So some of it is going to have to do with how we do on immigration.”
There are multiple reasons the timeline is sliding. One has been a busy Senate agenda, and it looks like it will remain hectic into the fall.
Asked if he is optimistic about passing a mini-grand bargain by year’s end, McCain bluntly said: “I don’t know.”
“There’s too many moving parts; there are too many players, and things haven’t gelled yet. I think within the next few weeks we’ll see a more clear path to a resolution,” McCain said. “It’s too unsettled right now with the focus being on guns, focus being on immigration reform, focus being on sequestration.”
Another reason, Corker said, is “a little bit of fiscal fatigue in our country in general.”
“I think people are just sort of over the topic. That doesn’t bode well for the intensity needed to solve the problem,” the Tennessean said.
Though he remains upbeat about Obama’s efforts, including a golf outing last week with Corker and Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., Corker said it remains unclear how lawmakers and the president will get a big fiscal deal done.
“Hopefully, regardless of that [fatigue], we’ll find some mechanism for moving ahead and solving this problem,” Corker said. “Right now, it’s not defined how that is going to occur.”
Yet another reason the Senate — and even senior House members say a grand bargain will have to originate in the upper chamber — has so far failed to begin work on the big long-term budget measure is the institution’s inability to multitask.
“The attention span around here is about that of a 4-year-old,” McCain told Defense News. “I think that’s why there hasn’t been as much attention on a grand bargain as you might have suspected.”
Senators laid out a number of things they acknowledge could derail efforts to strike a fiscal accord — and make the defense and domestic sequester cuts permanent.
That would send the Pentagon and defense sector into a panicked frenzy, some analysts say.
“It looks like the debt ceiling could hit around late September or early October,” Corker said. “I think for us to address it in advance would be a much more effective way for our country to operate, and it keeps any air of crisis from going into our economy.”
That kind of timing would force lawmakers to battle over the debt limit before their annual August recess, set to run from Aug. 3 until after the Labor Day holiday in early September, or immediately upon returning.
'It's so fragile'
Such a scenario then would place a potentially partisan debt-ceiling battle on a parallel course with the grand bargain negotiations.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters May 7 a bitter debt-ceiling fight could hinder efforts to reach the sequester-avoiding bargain.
“It’s so fragile, anything could derail them. The answer is ‘yeah,’ ” Levin said. “The possibility is strong enough that it’s not invulnerable to a lot of things.”
One Republican senator who will be at the forefront of any debt-ceiling battle — Republican fiscal hawk Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — was direct but upbeat. “I don’t think there’s going to be a nasty fight over the debt ceiling.”
On reaching a sequester-addressing grand bargain, Coburn said: “We have to, for the fiscal health of our country.”
With that, Coburn told a Senate subway operator, “Let’s go.’ ”
As the small train moved away, his focus, and that of the Senate, turned toward a floor squabble that would unfold the next day — then spill over into a second day of partisan reactions — over his gun-rights amendment to water resources legislation.