Stabenow (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Washington — After a 16-day government shutdown, Congress kicked off two high-stakes budget negotiations last week to hash out differences — and Michigan’s Sen. Debbie Stabenow is the only elected official in 535-seat Congress who sits at both negotiating tables.
The budget and farm bill conference committees are two small, bipartisan, bicameral negotiating teams working under tight deadlines to prove there is still some compromise left in Washington. In the thick of the challenge is Stabenow, the Lansing Democrat.
What the committees decide could affect Michigan from its defense-related facilities to the 1.8 million recipients of food aid.
“It’s going to be a busy time between now and Christmas,” Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee and member of the Senate Budget Committee, said Friday.
On Wednesday, Stabenow started her day among 29 members of the budget conference committee charged with figuring out stark differences in spending levels between the House and Senate plans for the 2014 budget. The panel has a deadline of mid-December to make recommendations.
There, she argued for a replacement of the “reckless” across-the-board spending reductions, known as sequestration, in favor of a balanced approach that includes taxes.
Stabenow doesn’t expect to produce a grand bargain that would include long-term reforms to entitlements, taxes and spending. But she remains hopeful they can at least tackle a one-year budget, something that has eluded Congress for several years.
If the conference committee fails, there’s risk of another government shutdown in mid-January when the current spending extensions expire.
“I am optimistic,” Stabenow said. “... I think the colleagues that did that understand they have to step back from the brink, and I think the majority of members in the House and Senate actually want to get something done.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Stabenow dashed to the 41-member agriculture conference tasked with finding agreement on the farm bill, which sets agriculture, nutrition and conservation policy for the next five years. She hopes to reach a deal before Thanksgiving so any deficit savings they approve could be applied to the overall budget negotiations, lessening the impact of the automatic sequester budget cuts.
“The savings we have can help stop what is a very reckless sequester policy of arbitrarily cutting things that are both important as well as things that aren’t,” Stabenow said.
Oklahoma Republican Rep. Frank Lucas, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, has a history of working with Stabenow to find compromise. The two forged a deal on $23 billion in deficit savings in agriculture in 2011 before the ill-fated supercommittee failed to produce a final deficit reduction plan.
Lucas said Wednesday that he’s confident they can build on their work in finishing the farm bill, which expired Sept. 30 and whose impacts on milk pricing and other farm policies will kick in starting in January.
“I’m confident that the spirit that’s been demonstrated in achieving this point — the passage of both bills out of the House and Senate ... — that we can accomplish that,” Lucas said Wednesday.
The biggest sticking point among the two chambers is cuts to the food stamp program: a Senate-passed bill calls for a $4 billion reduction, compared with the House’s nearly $40 billion over a decade.
This month benefits to food stamp recipients decreased because a boost passed during the recession expired Friday. Those reductions to monthly food allowances amount to about $11 billion over a decade, she said, and coupled with the $4 billion reduction Stabenow proposed by cutting out waste is plenty, she said. “I’m not going to add to that burden for families.”