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Prospects brighten for budget deal

| Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, 7:54 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Despite the poisonous environment in Congress, chances are improving for a small-scale budget deal next month that would ease automatic spending decreases that threaten to cut more deeply into domestic programs and military priorities in 2014.

Neither party will get its biggest priority — for Democrats, higher taxes; for Republicans, slowing the exploding cost of retirement programs. But a mutual desire to avert another government shutdown sets the stage for splitting the $91 billion difference between what Senate Democrats and House Republicans want to spend next year on operating budgets of the Pentagon and domestic agencies.

Any deal reached by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and his counterpart in the Senate, Patty Murray, could be rejected by their colleagues. Both profess optimism while working hard to minimize potentially damaging leaks that could derail efforts. Murray, D-Wash., plans to return to the Capitol the week after Thanksgiving to continue behind-closed-door negotiations even though the Senate will remain on recess.

Democratic and GOP aides familiar with the talks report progress but say there is no agreement yet.

Ryan, the 2012 GOP nominee for vice president, and Murray were members of earlier deficit panels that failed to strike large-scale budget deals. This time, they've set their sights considerably lower: a package of deficit savings sufficient to pay for restoring some of the automatic spending cuts triggered by the inability of Congress and the president to follow up on a 2011 deficit-shaving accord.

The automatic cuts known as sequestration require $109 billion in spending cuts every year through fiscal 2021 compared with limits set by the 2011 deal. About $90 billion of those cuts would come from agency budgets set by annual spending bills; the rest comes from cuts to a handful of so-called mandatory programs, including a 2 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements to health care providers.

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