WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Cole is optimistic a budget deal can be struck in the next few days that would avert a government shutdown next month and restore some sense of order and partisan cooperation to Congress.
The resolution that ended the October government shutdown extended funding only through Jan. 15. Though another shutdown isn't likely, lawmakers from both parties would prefer to pass a real budget rather than another stopgap measure.
Cole, R-Moore, is one of the House members on the panel negotiating an agreement. But recent talks have been mostly between the top two budget leaders in the House and Senate, and Cole said he wasn't sure about the details of a deal that may emerge.
“I'm going to be optimistic because everything I hear is good,” Cole said. “They're getting closer. I think we'll probably get there.”
The next challenge, he said, would be finding enough Republican and Democratic votes to pass it in the House.
Cole said any deal should ease the planned budget cuts on the Department of Defense and other agencies without reducing the savings from those cuts.
Media reports have suggested that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who heads the Senate Budget Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, have talked about changes to the pension system for federal workers and some federal fee increases to raise the amount of money available for defense and other domestic needs.
Cole, whose district includes Tinker Air Force Base and Fort Sill, said he has some concerns about requiring federal workers to pay more into their pension plans and doesn't know whether pension changes would make the final deal.
Democrats would likely resist major changes to federal employee benefits, and Cole said any budget deal will require Democratic votes to make up for the House Republicans who will vote against it.
In recent days, some Democrats have said a deal should include an extension of unemployment benefits that are set to expire this month.
“They're not getting extended without getting paid for,'' Cole said. “What would be the offset?”
Extending the benefits would cost an estimated $25 billion and paying for it would require finding savings elsewhere in the budget or raising revenue.
Cole is rooting for a deal in part so Congress can get back to its normal budget work.
It has been four years, he said, since both houses of Congress have passed a budget.
Restoring the “normal rhythms” of the budget and spending process could also restore some trust and good will among lawmakers who need to work together on the “small things” before they can tackle major issues such as immigration reform, Cole said.