Sanders at center of next budget battles

By:  Nicole Gaudiano and Ledyard King

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders is more optimistic than most people that the lawmakers named to a committee responsible for crafting a fiscal 2014 budget agreement stand some chance of success.

The Vermont independent, one of the negotiators on that conference committee, believes Americans’ low opinion of Congress — particularly of Republicans — will motivate the panel to address unemployment and mounting deficits in a way that’s fair to working families.

“There is that pressure on everybody’s shoulders, regardless of your politics, and I hope that moves us in a fruitful direction,” he said during an interview.

The 29-member conference committee was created as part of legislation ending the recent 16-day partial government shutdown and extending the debt limit until Feb. 7.

The panel consists of all 22 members of the Senate Budget Committee, including Sanders, along with seven House members. The group has until Dec. 13 to come up with an agreement on a budget for fiscal 2014, which began Oct. 1.

Meetings are to begin Wednesday.

Budget experts say bridging the gap between Republican and Democratic fiscal philosophies presents the conference committee with an enormous challenge.

Members of both parties agree that sequestration spending cuts — mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 to reduce spending by more than $1 trillion over 10 years — are bad for the country. But they agree on little else. Democrats want increases in tax revenue that Republicans oppose. Republicans want major changes to entitlement programs, which Democrats oppose.

“They have different fiscal visions, and overcoming these deep divisions over the next month-and-a-half seems unlikely,” said Joel Friedman, former deputy Democratic staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, who is now with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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