House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said today that he expects budget negotiators from the Bush Administration and Congress to agree by week's end to slice $50 billion from the federal deficit.
"I tend to be optimistic we'll reach a conclusion this week," Foley (D-Wash.) told reporters.
Negotiators returned to work at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland for a sixth straight day, hoping to overcome what they conceded were substantial remaining differences.
Their mood turned optimistic Tuesday as they moved toward agreement on a deal that could include higher Medicare premiums and alcohol taxes and lower Pentagon spending. The package would save $50 billion next year and $500 billion over the next five years.
According to officials involved in the talks, the compromise plan is likely to include $25 billion in new taxes for next year, including higher levies on alcohol and some luxury items, such as fancy cars.
Both sides said they were ready to accept larger monthly premiums for higher-income Medicare recipients. Several proposals remain alive, all pegging to family income the amount the elderly pay each month for Medicare coverage of doctors' bills. The current rate, $28.60 monthly, could increase as much as fourfold under one plan.
It would be the first time Medicare benefits were linked to income.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, "We fully expect there to be an agreement" on a deficit-reduction package.
In his speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, President Bush said that in the absence of an agreement, both houses should "allow a straight up-or-down vote on a complete $500-billion deficit reduction package--not later than Sept. 28."
Asked to elaborate today, Fitzwater said the Administration will submit its own package for such a vote if talks break down.