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Budget Proposal Is No 'Grand Bargain'

For years, there's been talk in Washington, D.C., about the "grand bargain" — a big deficit-reducing budget deal that rewrites the tax code and trims from the long-term costs of Medicare and Social Security. Tuesday night, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan announced what can only be described as a small bargain. But if it's approved by the House and Senate, it would avoid another government shutdown in January.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's be clear about what a budget agreement in Washington does and does not do.

MONTAGNE: It does not raise taxes or dramatically change spending.

INSKEEP: It does not extend unemployment benefits.

MONTAGNE: It does not address the long-term costs of Medicare or Social Security.

INSKEEP: It does fix some parts of the budget that lawmakers hate the most, while raising some extra money through fees.

MONTAGNE: Maybe more important, lawmakers agreed before the last possible second. In a moment we'll talk with Senator Patty Murray, one of the negotiators. We start with NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Budget Committee Chairmen Paul Ryan and Patty Murray have been talking for months to get to this point. The deal they announced would set the federal budget at just about a trillion dollar this year and next. It would replace a big chunk of the sequester cuts with other trims and increased fees. And that's pretty much it. Ryan is a Republican congressman from Wisconsin and a conservative hero. He defended going small.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: I think this agreement is a clear improvement on the status quo. This agreement makes sure that we don't have a government shutdown scenario in January. It makes sure that we don't have another government shutdown scenario in October. It makes sure that we don't lurch from crisis to crisis.

KEITH: It means we can keep our crisis countdown clocks safely locked away, at least for a while. Senator Murray, a Democrat from Washington State, says this is a compromise.

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: This isn't the plan I would have written on my own. I'm pretty sure that Chairman Ryan wouldn't have written it on his own. And there are obviously differences between our parties when it comes to our budget values and priorities. I was disappointed that we weren't able to close even a single corporate tax loophole. I know many Republicans had hoped this would be an opportunity to make some of the kinds of changes to Medicare and Social Security they've advocated for.

KEITH: But those are the things that have tied this divided Congress in knots year after year, and Ryan says not going there was by design.

RYAN: We knew that if we forced each other to compromise a core principle, we would get nowhere. That is why we decided to focus on where the common ground is. So that's what we've done.

KEITH: Federal employees will have to make larger retirement contributions. Cost of living adjustments for working-age military retirees will shrink. Airport security fees will increase. There are savings from cutting waste, fraud and abuse, as well as a grab bag of other items. But Democrats can walk away saying they protected the programs they value. And Republicans can say they didn't raise taxes.

MAYA MACGUINEAS: At least it's not an 11th hour nail biter like we've seen so many times in the last months and years.

KEITH: Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee For a Responsible Federal Budget, has been one of the more vocal advocates of a grand bargain. And this, she says, is anything but grand, but it's something.

MACGUINEAS: What Chairmen Murray and Ryan have done here is take a baby, baby, baby step forward at a time when we've made no progress at all. And so you have to kind of keep giving them the encouragement to now try for something a little bit bigger next time they go at this.

KEITH: But first, Murray and Ryan have to sell this deal to their fellow members of Congress. Conservative groups have come out strongly against it. Democrats seem largely to be holding their fire, though many of the statements released last night were far from celebratory. President Obama described it as a good first step. Senator Murray made a prediction.

MURRAY: I'm confident that we won't have 100 percent of the Senate or 100 percent of the House. This is a bipartisan deal.

KEITH: Another big thing this agreement doesn't address is unemployment insurance; some had hoped an extension would be included in the deal. Without congressional action, 1.3 million of the long-term unemployed will see their benefits cut off abruptly at the end of the month. The House is expected to vote later this week on the deal, with the Senate to follow.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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