Signs of progress began to emerge in U.S. budget talks on Tuesday, as top Senate Democratic negotiator Patty Murray said that she sees a path toward an agreement to ease automatic "sequester" spending cuts.
Murray, asked if there was now a path forward in her talks with her counterpart, Republican Representative Paul Ryan, said: "I believe there is."
The lawmakers are racing against a Dec. 13 deadline for a deal, as Republican resistance to including new tax revenues continued to be a sticking point, according to a Democrat on the negotiating committee headed by Murray and Ryan.
The Senate Budget Committee chairwoman declined to elaborate on any possible consensus in the talks but said that the two were working toward a small deal.
Her comments echoed positive sentiments expressed by some Republican and Democratic aides about the talks, as well as by a fellow member of the budget-negotiating panel, Senator Angus King, an independent.
King told reporters it was his impression the regular meetings between Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Murray were yielding progress in the talks.
"I'm encouraged that there's regular contact between Patty Murray and Paul Ryan and that the staffs are talking and apparently they're working toward some kind of deal. But again my understanding is there are major issues outstanding, the principal one being revenues."
Murray and other Democrats on the 29-member budget panel are seeking revenues from the closure of tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations to replace part of the sequester cuts, which are due take a $91 billion bite out of funding for government agencies and discretionary programs next year.
Republicans have refused to consider such tax hikes and want to pay for any easing of the sequester with spending cuts on federal benefits programs.
A spokesman for Ryan, of Wisconsin, declined to comment on the talks.
Ryan and Murray have been in contact daily since the negotiating panel's second public meeting last week, a senior Democratic aide said.
"They wouldn't be having these continued conversations and they wouldn't be continuing to work if they didn't see some path to a deal," the aide said.
A House Republican aide also said Ryan had told some lawmakers in private conversations that he was close to a deal with Murray. But the aide did not provide any details.
The next round of across-the-board spending cuts known as "sequestration" are set to begin Jan. 15, the same date that federal government funding expires again.
The positive sentiments also came as Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, on Tuesday urged House Republicans to stand together in favor of keeping the sequester cuts in place with a $967 billion discretionary spending level for fiscal 2014 that began Oct. 1.
Many Republicans have said that if the budget talks fail, they would simply keep this spending level in place, even if it means accepting bigger cuts to military spending. This would be preferable to any new revenues, they say.
But the party is beginning to splinter over the sequester cuts, indicating that there may not be enough Republican votes to approve the lower spending level of $967 billion. Democrats want to return to the pre-sequester level of $1.058 trillion for the current fiscal year.
An inability of Congress to approve a 2014 budget at the $967 billion level could be providing an incentive for Murray and Ryan to forge a substitute deal.
McConnell, who is facing a primary re-election challenge in Kentucky from a candidate allied with the conservative Tea Party movement, told reporters that the budget panel should not give up savings enshrined in the 2011 budget deal that put the sequester cuts in place.
"I think it's a bad idea to revisit a law that is actually working and reducing spending for the government," he said. "Within those constraints, I wish them well. I hope they do get a budget."
McConnell's pitch in a closed-door meeting received push back from some House Republicans, including Republican Representative Scott Rigell, whose Virginia district is home to many naval installations in the Norfolk area that would suffer big cuts.
"Congressman Rigell did speak with the Senator to make clear his views that the combination of sequester and continuing resolutions are damaging our military," said Rigell spokeswoman Kim Mosser Knapp.
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