Budget talks may start with extra-friendly tone

WASHINGTON - Catch your breath. And get ready for another fight. The next fiscal face-off in Congress is likely to start in just over a week.

That's when the group of nearly 30 lawmakers charged with working out a budget plan for the government plans to hold its first meeting, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, told CNN after he and three other top congressional budget leaders sat down Thursday morning. Sessions is the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.

The group, known as a budget conference committee, is kicking into gear as part of the shutdown deal. If the conference committee agrees on key elements such as spending level and tax provisions, it would essentially do the heavy lifting and lower the chances of a shutdown connected to the next fiscal deadline, January 15, when current spending expires.

But that won't be easy.

The House and Senate each passed vastly different budget plans earlier in the year and Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats agreed to try and work out the differences in a traditional way -- a conference committee. Sessions said leaders want to start meeting as soon as the Senate returns October 28. The conference committee has until December 13 to come up with an agreement.

Hours after the bitter shutdown fight ended, the four top leaders on the House and Senate budget committees walked out of a meeting -- each wearing a smile and sounding notably warmer than weeks past.

"We want to look for ways to find common ground," said House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. "Our goal is to do good for the American people."

The others echoed the "common ground" theme.

"We believe there is common ground in showing the American people that Congress can work," said Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray, D-Washington.

The examples of common ground were broad goals: a stronger economy, more jobs, a smaller deficit. The vast differences over how to accomplish those things were not mentioned, but have stymied Congress for years, including the high-profile and failed "super committee in 2011.

Why would this group succeed?

"The super committee's goals were much larger," said Murray, who co-chaired the panel. "(Our challenge) is to have a reconciliation between the House budget and the Senate budget."

In other words, the super committee aimed to come up with a long-term "big deal" for a decade or more. This budget conference committee could tackle some long-term items such as entitlement reform, but Murray said for now they mostly hope to outline spending and revenue for the next year or two.

Still, the differences are wide as the conference committee tries to develop its blueprint for spending.

The Democratic Senate budget would spend at higher levels. The Republican House budget would cut more and significantly rework Medicare. Adding to the sense of contrast, Ryan and Sessions were among the Republicans who voted "no" Wednesday for the shutdown deal that Murray had championed.

At a later news conference, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi seemed to express skepticism. "Senator Sessions and Paul Ryan did not vote for the bill last night. They did not vote for this bill that takes us to the table. .. so I think it will be interesting to see what that means."

For his part, Ryan pointed to a separate statement he made about the Wednesday vote, in which he said he objected to spending levels in the deal but was looking forward to a conference committee.

The divide is stark, as Murray recognized.

"Chairman Ryan knows I'm not going to vote for his budget. I know that he's not going to vote for mine," she said. "We are going to find the common ground between our two budgets that we both can vote on."

The conference committee marks a return to so-called "regular order," the more normal operating procedures in Congress. But "regular order" has been highly irregular in recent years. The last successful budget conference committee was in 2009.

That truth came out for just a moment Thursday.

"There's a number of things I know we can agree on," Sessions started. Then he seemed to rethink and dilute his optimism, " I don't want to raise expectations (beyond) reality, but I think there are things we could do."

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