The Smart Money: The Conference Committee solution

Posted Tuesday, December 17, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The Conference Committee solution

by Gina Hamilton

After the autumn government shutdown, a chastened House and a somewhat more smug Senate decided to deal with the automatic cuts put in place to deal with the "debt crisis", known as the sequester, in a conference committee.

A conference committee is a group of people from both houses of Congress, the House and the Senate, who are thrown together to work out a solution to a vexing problem without having the whole gang thrown in.  Supposedly, those who are the most thoughtful and analytical on the issue at hand - in this case, the whole Senate Budget Committee, and seven members from the House Budget Committee, sat on the panel.  A conference committee is usually composed of the senior members of the relevant committees, that is the budget committee in each house, but this time, there were 29 members on the conference committee and only seven of them House members, four Republicans and three Democrats.

Against all odds, the group came up with a plan both sides thought they could sell to their bodies.  Paul Ryan, who is the chair of the budget committee in the House, and Patty Murray, who is the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, did compromise on some rather important things, and initially, it was doubtful that House Republicans would go for it.  Senate Democrats are also unhappy with the compromise.

On December 10, the conference committee announced their agreement. 

Essentially, the plan does these things:

The nature of those cuts are challenging for Senate Democrats, because some of them involve real pain for working people and the unemployed.  Long-term unemployment benefits will end in just a few days- December 29 - putting some of the most vulnerable Americans at risk.  Pension cuts are also being demanded of federal workers again, a group that's been hit hard a number of times in the last year, from furloughs to the shutdown. 

Even though it wasn't even close to what the House Republicans had hoped for, the budget bill passed by the full House on Friday, Dec. 13, 332-94.  Voting for the measure were 169 Republicans and 163 Democrats, while 62 Republicans and 32 Democrats voted against.  So it was a fairly bipartisan thing in the House, with only the most radical tea partiers on the Republican side voting against.

Things aren't going to be that simple in the Senate.

Although the bill passed a critical cloture vote (now all the Senate has to do is gat a simply majority in the Senate.  And though the bill is expected to pass ultimately, Democrats are unhappy with aspects of the bill.

And that's not the end of it.  By the end of the quarter, it will be time to do something to raise the debt ceiling again.  And Tuesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell said that Republicans would be exacting concessions to raise the debt ceiling.  "I doubt if the House or, for that matter, the Senate is willing to give the president a clean debt ceiling increase. Every time the president asks us to raise the debt ceiling is a good time to try to achieve something important for the country."

February should be another interesting month. The last time Republicans stood their ground on economic issues, last fall, they lost a great deal of support with the general population.  Will they do the same thing in the February of an election year?

Stay tuned.

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