By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior U.S. Senate Democrat and a high-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives urged congressional budget negotiators on Thursday to agree on a 2014 spending level by November 22 - even if they have not yet figured out how to achieve any required savings.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said identifying a cap on discretionary spending was their top priority as talks to reduce automatic, "sequester" spending cuts began this week.
The sooner that number is determined, the better the chance that lawmakers can pass new spending legislation in time to avoid another government shutdown threat on January 15, they said in a letter to the leaders of the negotiating panel.
Deciding quickly on a spending level would provide budget negotiators with an early target for the size of any potential deal. They would then have to find savings to replace that amount of sequester cuts.
"We believe that if an agreement on a discretionary spending number can be reached early, it will allow for more thoughtful and responsible spending decisions, set the parameters for the budgetary savings that need to be reached in your budget conference, and build momentum for a larger budget agreement," said Mikulski, who represents Maryland, and Rogers, from Kentucky. Neither is on the budget negotiating panel.
They asked the panel to decide on spending caps "no later than December 2 and preferably November 22," prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.
That would provide the House and Senate appropriations committees more time to allocate funds among the military, federal agencies and discretionary programs ranging from education to national parks. The process broke down before the October 1 start of the current fiscal year because of arguments over how to distribute deep sequester spending cuts.
The budget panel, commissioned under this month's deal to end a government shutdown, met for the first time on Wednesday. It is not scheduled to meet again until November 13, as the House is on recess next week.
Current spending authority expires on January 15, and without new legislation, federal agencies would be forced to close again
'PICK UP THE PACE'
Responding to the letter, Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen, a negotiating panel member, said, "Replacing the job-killing sequester and adopting top line budget numbers should be a key priority of the budget negotiations.
"The Conference Committee should pick up the pace of the negotiations so we can get an agreement by Thanksgiving (November 28) and give the Appropriations Committees time to do their work," Van Hollen said in a statement.
The so-called budget conference committee is working to find alternative budget savings to replace all or part of $109 billion in 2014 sequester cuts - about $91 billion of which hits discretionary spending.
More than half those cuts would fall on the U.S. military and national security programs. Representative Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has warned that the cuts, if left in place, would cause some counterterrorism operations to be shut down, putting U.S. national security at risk.
The defense cuts, which total about $20 billion more in 2014 than in 2013, could prove a motivator for more moderate Republicans to find alternative savings. Some conservative Republicans allied with the Tea Party movement have argued for keeping the sequester cuts in place, defense cuts and all.
(This story has been corrected to fix name, committee of Republican sending letter)
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Peter Cooney)