House Republicans and Senate Democrats have unveiled federal budgets that haven't a prayer of passage, but, believe it or not, that's progress of a sort.
The Senate demonstrated progress by even having a budget, which, if they pass it, would be their first in four years. Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., would raise $1.85 trillion over the next 10 years - $1 trillion of that in tax increases - cut $1 trillion in spending and use some of that money on a $100 billion jobs and infrastructure plan.
The Republicans are flatly opposed to the taxes and the jobs program. Moreover, Murray would get rid of the sequester cuts; the architect of the GOP budget would not.
The House Republicans are back with the Paul Ryan plan that after two years of trying and appealing only to the GOP faithful is beginning to seem a little shopworn. Despite the convincing rejection of his ideas in the last election, he would still try to save $2.7 trillion by abolishing the Affordable Care Act - "Obamacare" - and turning Medicaid over to the states. Before the election, Ryan himself called it a “referendum” on his ideas. Has he not yet read the returns?
Ryan has been told, even by members of his own party, that neither of those is going to happen. The chances of Obamacare being abolished diminish with each passing year as parts of the program begin to kick in.
He proposes to save $4.6 trillion over 10 years while leaving military spending untouched, meaning with the sequestration cuts still in place many popular domestic programs would have to go.
Ryan is also calling for a cut in the top income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. He would accomplish this by unspecified closing of tax loopholes, eliminating deductions and further cuts in domestic spending, all under the rubric "tax reform." Working out the details of this fiscal miracle would be left to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Looking at the Ryan plan, the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group of high-powered budget and tax specialists, noted that Ryan has left the door open for possible compromise, acknowledging that some elements of his plan are unlikely to be accepted by Democrats.
"Without those items, most notably repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and substantial Medicaid cuts, the House Republican and Senate Democratic deficit paths are likely to be only around $200 billion apart," the coalition said, adding that elected officials should be able to bridge this difference through bipartisan cooperation and compromise.
The climate in Washington does seem to be changing, if only slightly, so perhaps the coalition's optimism is not entirely misplaced. In a functional Congress, these would be seen as starting points for debate and compromise. But for this to be a functional Congress – unlike the last one – it must have the capacity to find a compromise between the two. We’ll control our optimism while waiting for someone to appear who is willing to try to bridge the gap.