A veteran Senate GOP tax expert with long experience working across the aisle was tapped Tuesday to help run a powerful new congressional debt-reduction committee, buoying hopes that the panel would produce a plan to tame borrowing.
Mark Prater, 52, has served as chief tax counsel for Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee for nearly two decades, playing a key role in forging consensus on numerous major tax and deficit-reduction bills. His appointment as staff director was announced in a joint statement by the committee co-chairs, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.).
“Mark has a well-earned reputation for being a workhorse who members of both parties have relied on,” their statement said.
The announcement comes as the panel, officially known as Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, gears up for its September debut. Created this summer as part of an epic battle to raise the legal limit on government borrowing, the 12-member panel must identify a plan by Thanksgiving to slice at least $1.2 trillion from projected borrowing over the next decade or risk triggering across-the-board cuts in January 2013.
The committee must convene its first meeting by Sept. 16. Murray and Hensarling are still discussing the schedule. Aides said it could begin with a series of public hearings on the national debt, which stands at $14.6 trillion.
The panel’s Republican members met privately Tuesday for a day-long session to chart strategy. Democrats will hold a conference call Wednesday. Meanwhile, members are reviewing the work of an array of recent debt-reduction panels, including a task force appointed by President Obama that recommended a sweeping strategy for stabilizing the debt by cutting health and retirement programs and overhauling the tax code.
Observers in both parties predicted that the committee will revisit talks led by Vice President Biden, which scoured the task force reports and identified hundreds of billions of dollars in potential savings.
The choice of Prater fueled speculation that Republicans may also be ready to discuss new revenue. Though an ardent advocate of small business who helped steer the 2001 tax cuts through Congress, Prater had a hand in landmark budget deals in 1990 and 1997, which both included tax increases.
A native of Portland, Prater graduated in 1981 from Portland State University and later earned a law degree from Willamette University College of Law and a master of laws degree in taxation from the University of Florida. He came to Washington in 1990 to work for Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), then-Finance Committee chairman, and ascended to the top GOP tax job in 1994.
Democrats and Republicans alike praised Prater as an honest broker with an encyclopedic knowledge of tax and health policy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called him “one of the brightest, most knowledgeable, trusted and professional staffers on Capitol Hill.” Bill Dauster, deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), called Prater “the kind of person you can talk to about how to get to yes, how you cut the deal, what pieces have to move.”