Photo by AP Wideworld
House budget panel Chairman Ryan (left) and Senate committee Chairman Murray must strike a deal by Dec. 13.

On Oct. 30, House and Senate lawmakers finally sat down at the negotiating table to try to hammer out a compromise budget blueprint for fiscal year 2014. If the talks, led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate budget panel Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), succeed, the product will be the first budget resolution to be enacted since 2009. But the clock is ticking: Congress has set a Dec. 13 deadline for conferees to reach an agreement.

That tight time frame increases the chances the conference committee will take a narrow focus—for example, seeking a compromise on discretionary spending caps. The Senate budget calls for a $1.058-trillion limit for 2014; the House's cap is $966 billion.

Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the Appropriations Committee chairs, want budget conferees to move quickly on the caps. In an Oct. 31 letter, they asked them to agree by Nov. 22 on a discretionary spending limit for 2014. Within that limit, appropriators would set specific amounts for each line-item program.

Construction industry officials will be watching to see what spending level emerges and whether conferees replace the budget sequester's 2014 mandatory cuts with other reductions.

At the joint committee's first meeting, Ryan urged panel members to "focus on achievable goals." Murray said the "absolute minimum" result the conference should produce is a compromise budget level for the short term and a replacement for the sequester. Ryan said, "We all agree that there's a smarter way to cut spending."

The 2013 sequester, which took effect on March 1, cut construction programs by a total of $4 billion, ENR estimated. Defense accounts, including military construction and Dept. of Energy environmental cleanup, were sliced 7.8%. Non-defense programs, such as Environmental Protection Agency water infrastructure, were pared 5%. But the 2013 sequester's ground rules spared some key construction accounts, including the $39.1-billion trust-fund-financed portion of the federal-aid highway program.

Jeff Shoaf, Associated General Contractors senior executive director for government affairs, says, "We'd like to see ... a decision on how to responsibly deal with sequester and returning to regular order on appropriations bills." AGC wants conferees to go further and address, for example, entitlement programs.

The National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association also prefers that conferees reach a wide-ranging budget pact, says Pam Whitted, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs. But Whitted adds, "What I'm hearing is that it's going to be a much smaller budget agreement and very limited."