'Twas two weeks before Christmas, and all through the Senate and House, not a budget deal was stirring, so the country's citizens did grouse ...

Yep. Congress is haggling again over a plan to keep the federal government running, this time past Jan. 15. And many Americans are hoping the deal isn't simply a "continuing resolution" that will have Democrats and Republicans back at the bargaining table -- and at each other's throats -- a few months down the road.

October's government shutdown stoked white-hot anger toward Congress, and the deal that ended the impasse gave lawmakers until this Friday to negotiate a deal. A bipartisan panel has been hunkered down seeking common ground.

But that ground, by most indications, might be only a few square inches.

So we asked three prominent Californians -- a liberal, a conservative and a maverick -- what Congress should do to avoid another shutdown and move the nation forward. The liberal said the budget "sequester" -- automatic cuts Congress approved in 2011 to take effect early this year in case Republicans and Democrats couldn't settle their differences -- must be reshaped or retracted. The conservative said it doesn't cut deep enough.

The conservative and the maverick said they want to see a "grand bargain" involving changes to two popular programs: Medicare and Social Security. The liberal said those programs should be off the table.


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All agreed on one thing: The stakes are high, even if they can't agree why.

See Page A8.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland

Famously liberal Barbara Lee, a House Budget Committee member, said the sequester is laying waste to unemployment benefits, food aid such as Meals on Wheels and federal nutrition programs, and other efforts to keep needy Americans fed and sheltered. It's time, she said, to "provide a safety net until we turn this economy around where people can get a job and take care of their families."

With the deficit coming down, Lee said, it's also time to rebuild the nation's roads and bridges, beef up education spending and increase the amount of clean energy.

"There are huge benefits in terms of job creation if you make the right investments," she said. "We also need to target resources into communities that have been hardest hit by the recession, into areas with high concentrations of people who live below the poverty line."

She would like to see a budget that's closer to balanced -- which she said can be achieved through corporate tax hikes, fee increases and slashed oil and farm subsidies. And, she said, the defense budget can be cut by scaling back wasteful programs and by ending the war in Afghanistan as soon as possible.

But Medicare and Social Security "shouldn't be discussed," Lee said. "There are certain reforms that could be made, but not as part of a budget deal."

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay

"Ultimately the solvency of the United States is at stake," said Tom McClintock, a fierce conservative who also sits on the House Budget Committee. "Before you can provide for the common defense and the general welfare, you have to be able to pay for it."

The deficit and national debt pose the biggest threat to the nation's security and future, he said, so they must be cut as deeply and quickly as possible. McClintock wants to see big budget cuts -- which he declined to specify -- but hopes at least that the budget sequester will stay in place. "We're currently on the best possible course that's available to us, given the realities of a divided government."

McClintock wants a "grand bargain" that includes long-term reform of Medicare and Social Security -- though he conceded it isn't politically realistic right now -- as well as reform of regulations that he says are strangling the nation's economic growth.

"The healthy way is to reduce the burdens on commerce and to grow the economy; the morbid way to increase revenues is to exact more taxes out of a sluggish economy," he said. "We have tried that policy over and over again, and it does not work."

And spending money based on political concerns rather than purely economic concerns is never as efficient, he said. "That is the difference between Solyndra and Apple," McClintock said, citing the government-funded solar manufacturer in Fremont that went belly up two years ago.

Former Rep. Tom Campbell

When he was a South Bay congressman, Tom Campbell always liked to call himself "the cheapest man in Congress" -- an appellation once bestowed on him by the National Taxpayers Union for being a fiscal tightwad. And years later, the maverick Republican still likes the ring of it.

"Democrats and Republicans alike are ready to throw the sequester over the side, and that would be a great mistake," Campbell said. "It's the only method for cutting spending that I've seen."

Campbell, a former California finance director who's now the dean of Chapman University's School of Law, said he would cap spending at levels lower than the growth of the gross domestic product. He also would cut farm subsidies and pursue wide-ranging reform of the tax code.

He said a grand bargain that includes changes to Medicare and Social Security "is highly needed and highly unlikely."

Democrats won't bend on those two big-money programs, and Republicans won't bend on taxes until after 2014's primary elections. "Once the Democrats don't have to worry about their left wing and the Republicans don't have to worry about their right wing," he said, "they can then compromise."

Meanwhile, Campbell said, Congress should maintain a "laser focus on what the problem is: People are out of work."

Campbell favors expanding the Earned Income Tax credit for low- to moderate-income workers instead of increasing the minimum wage. And he would give targeted tax credits to employers who hire unemployed workers for six months or more.

"That directly gets people employed -- and from that everything else grows," he said.

There are lots of good arguments for social service programs, Campbell said, "but nothing works as well as a job."

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.