By Lori Montgomery
WASHINGTON -- House and Senate negotiators were putting the finishing touches Sunday on what would be the first successful budget accord since 2011, when the battle over a soaring national debt first paralyzed Washington.
The deal expected to be sealed this week on Capitol Hill would not significantly reduce the debt, now $17.3 trillion and rising. It would not close corporate tax loopholes or overhaul expensive health care and retirement programs. It would not even fully replace sharp spending cuts known as the sequester, the negotiators' primary target.
After more than two years of constant crisis, the emerging agreement amounts to little more than a cease-fire. Republicans and Democrats are abandoning their debt-reduction goals, laying down arms and, for the moment, trying to avoid another economy-damaging standoff.
The campaign to control the debt is ending "with a whimper, not a bang," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the bipartisan Concord Coalition, which advocates debt reduction. "That this can be declared a victory is an indicator of how low the process has sunk. They haven't really done anything except avoid another crisis."
Details of the agreement remained murky Sunday as aides to the principal negotiators, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., continued to work behind closed doors. Mr. Ryan and Ms. Murray chair a 29-member conference committee tasked with approving a plan to fund federal agencies through fiscal 2014, which began Oct. 1, and avoid another government shutdown when a temporary funding measure expires in January.
With lawmakers due back in town Tuesday, aides said Mr. Ryan and Ms. Murray are likely to bypass the committee and take the deal, if finalized, straight to the full House and Senate. Congressional leaders hope to finish work quickly and leave town for the holidays as soon as Friday.
Senior aides familiar with the talks say the emerging agreement aims to partially repeal the sequester and raise agency spending to roughly $1.015 trillion in fiscal 2014 and 2015. That would bring agency budgets up to the target already in place for fiscal 2016. To cover the cost, Mr. Ryan and Ms. Murray are haggling over roughly $65 billion in alternative policies, including cuts to federal worker pensions and higher security fees for the nation's airline passengers.
Republican leaders are also seeking additional savings to knock a small dent in deficits projected to exceed $6 trillion over the next decade. But the deal would do nothing to trim the debt, which is now larger, as a percentage of the economy, than at any point in U.S. history except for during World War II.
In that sense, the talks have followed the game plan Mr. Ryan sketched in October after Republicans agreed to reopen the government following a 16-day shutdown. Despite his own ambitious blueprint for shrinking spending, Mr. Ryan said he would not attempt a big deal, because it would require a "grand bargain" in which Democrats agree to cut safety-net spending in exchange for Republican concessions on taxes.
A grand bargain has been the Holy Grail in half a dozen rounds of negotiations, including talks between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in summer 2011.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ryan and Ms. Murray were looking to squeeze billions more from the sale of broadcast spectrum. But analysts are already worried that an auction set for early next year could fall tens of billions of dollars short of revenue targets because smaller networks are lobbying to limit participation by wireless giants AT&T and Verizon.
A Senate hearing on the matter is set for Tuesday.
Even this modest package faces political hurdles. Democrats began pressing last week for a $25 billion extension of emergency benefits for the long-term unemployed that are set to expire at the end of the month, cutting off 1.3 million people. The last-minute demand frustrated Republicans, who note that the jobless rate fell to 7 percent in November, the lowest level in five years.
On Sunday, however, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said Democrats are not drawing a line in the sand.
"I don't think we've reached that point where we've said this is it, take it or leave it," Mr. Durbin said on ABC's "This Week."