On the eve of Rep. Paul Ryan's self-imposed Tuesday deadline to reach a budget agreement with Sen. Patty Murray, there was still no final deal, according to aides in both parties. And for a growing faction of Washington conservatives, that's a good thing.
Ryan, the budget conference committee cochair, told House GOP comrades last week that, "If we don't have a deal by Tuesday, we probably won't have a deal at all." He suggested an agreement would have to be struck by Tuesday in order for leadership to vet the specifics and submit it to the Rules Committee by Wednesday. If that deadline is met, lawmakers could vote before leaving Friday for the holiday recess.
But as legislative business closed Monday evening, there were scant signs of an imminent budget breakthrough. A few lawmakers wandered the Capitol's corridors, none of them claiming to have heard anything new on the negotiations. "There have been no conference calls today, no emails, nothing," one House Republican lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday.
That could be welcome news for a growing clique of Republicans on Capitol Hill. Indeed, fresh evidence emerged Monday that conservatives — especially in the lower chamber — could attempt to torpedo any deal that swaps sequester cuts in exchange for user fees and promises of future spending reductions.
"Right now, there is no deal. Period."
As the lawmaker, a Ryan ally, put it: "When we agree to future cuts, those cuts generally don't materialize."
In addition, the conservative powerhouse Heritage Action, which holds enormous influence over the House GOP, lent its voice to the opposition on Monday.
"Heritage Action cannot support a budget deal that would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions," the group said in a statement. "While imperfect, the sequester has proven to be an effective tool in forcing Congress to reduce discretionary spending, and a gimmicky, spend-now-cut-later deal will take our nation in the wrong direction."
This thinking has gained momentum in conservative circles in recent days, as evidenced by a high-ranking Republican aide who echoed Heritage's statement minutes before its release. "Higher spending and higher revenues — what conservative member could support that?" the aide said.
Indeed, amid a flurry of rumors pointing to a pending deal being announced this week, staffers on both sides of the aisle said matter-of-factly that a final agreement has yet to be reached.
"Right now, there is no deal. Period," one senior Republican aide said.
Speaker John Boehner has said the House would pass a stopgap bill if budget negotiators failed to reach an agreement.
But according to aides, both Ryan and Murray were still pressing to meet a timetable that, under various scenarios permitted by House rules, would allow a House floor vote by Friday afternoon, when the chamber is scheduled to adjourn for the year.
"Paul Ryan carries a significant amount of weight with us — he's not going to throw us off the bus."
Such a timetable would have Murray and Ryan unveiling details as early as Tuesday to other top House and Senate leaders. House Republicans, as a conference, are not scheduled to meet until Wednesday morning, when Ryan could formally lay out the details to his colleagues. An agreement as late as Wednesday would still have time to be considered for floor action by Friday, and the Senate is set to be in session at least one more week.
One GOP lawmaker who is allied with Ryan said he remains "fairly optimistic" that a deal will be reached. But he said the negotiations are so "fragile" that it's impossible to predict the outcome. Another House Republican was more optimistic, saying he is confident that if Ryan does come up with a plan this week, it is one most rank-and-file Republicans would support.
"Paul Ryan carries a significant amount of weight with us — he's not going to throw us off the bus," the Republican said.
Both sides are still trying to finalize a two-year plan that would keep government open beyond Jan. 15 without raising taxes, while also partially easing some of the sequester cuts to military and domestic programs.
What is known so far about the contours of the draft is that it would add more than $40 billion to the annualized top-line budget number for fiscal 2014, raising it to more than $1 trillion from what would be $967 billion under current law. The added money would be split between military and domestic spending.
Another $25 billion would be added in fiscal 2015, and similarly split, with another $20 billion provided for deficit reduction.
What has remained unsettled is the specific make-up of so-called offsets to allow for the added spending. The plan would not, as described by those who have received information, close corporate loopholes or raise taxes. Rather, it would rely on a menu of offsets in the forms of higher fees and other maneuvers not yet finalized.
Options floated include raising the security fees on airline tickets, making changes to federal retirement programs that would increase worker contributions, and increasing premiums for pension plans, a move backed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. The idea of increasing the amount of money that civil federal employees must contribute to their pensions is one that has drawn Democratic fire, and on Monday continued to elicit anger from federal employee unions.
"They both think they're close, but there are still some final issues," a Senate Democratic aide said of Ryan and Murray. "Some of the final issues that they're dealing with are tough issues."