Pressure’s on for deficit panel

August 13, 2011

The 12 congressional lawmakers appointed last week to the new, high-stakes deficit reduction panel will convene next month amid super-partisan pressures that have blocked past efforts at bipartisan compromise on debt reduction. Skepticism that they will reach a mutually acceptable agreement is running high.

But in their early public comments since receiving the assignment, several of the lawmakers appointed to the panel have sounded unexpectedly eager to find common ground — and to avoid taking the kind of rigid stands that would be difficult to rescind once negotiations begin.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), a freshman favorite of the tea party, told reporters last week that while he is not interested in a “big tax increase,” he thinks that there are areas where the tax code could be made more “sensible.”

He pointed to his recent vote to eliminate subsidies for ethanol producers — which some conservatives saw as a tax increase — as a sign that he is ready to compromise.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) pledged to “be as open as possible, check my ego and my preconditions at the door and let the work of the committee drive us to a conclusion.”

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who chairs the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, told Reuters last week that nothing should be off-limits for committee consideration.

It is far from clear that this apparent spirit of conciliation can translate into actual agreement.

The six Democrats and six Republicans charged by their party leadership with cutting the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years meet as polls indicate that disgust with congressional gridlock is at an all-time high.

Americans’ faith in the government’s ability to solve the nation’s economic problems has also sunk to alarming lows, even as a gyrating stock market and a national credit downgrade have made the magnitude of the country’s fiscal woes more apparent.

Committee members might be eager to have their deliberations at least appear less rancorous than the negotiations over raising the debt ceiling that resulted in the panel’s creation.

But the tone of comments also suggests that after that hard-fought battle there might be a brief moment of opportunity to do what has eluded other bipartisan panels and special fiscal commissions.

“There’s a potential for a bipartisan deal here. There has been for a while,” said Alice Rivlin, a former White House budget director who chaired the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force. “The new element is the revulsion of the country and the world at the spectacle that we have just lived through.”

For the so-called “supercommittee,” the stakes are high. Not only is there pressure to help stabilize the nation’s finances, but pressure also to help restore Congress’s reputation as an institution that can function effectively.

“I’m not making any predictions here,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a supercommittee member, “but the ingredients could produce a good outcome.”

Skepticism about the panel’s prospects for success stems from the failures of the past year. A series of negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House did not bridge core differences between Republicans and Democrats or produce the budget “grand bargain” the president and House Speaker John A. Boehner were working toward.

Republicans are demanding that the supercommittee make changes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, a tough concession for Democrats. Many Democrats, including President Obama, say spending cuts must be paired with higher taxes on the wealthy, which are considered “job-killing” and off-limits by many Republicans.

Others potential obstacles are the belief by some that the congressional focus on debt reduction is misplaced while the economy is still ailing and the fact that sophisticated and well-funded interest groups are gearing up to enforce each party’s priorities.

And many politicians on their own think the panel itself is a terrible idea.

“Look, I think this supercommittee is about as dumb an idea as Washington has come up with in my lifetime,” Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said at the Iowa Republican debate last week.

“The idea that 523 senators and congressmen are going to sit around for four months while 12 brilliant people, mostly picked for political reasons, are going to sit in some room and brilliantly come up with a trillion dollars or force us to choose between gutting our military and accepting a tax increase is irrational,” he said.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) told ABC’s “Top Line” that he thought the supercommittee was “anti-democratic,” charging a majority of the committee to come up with an agreement instead of the whole legislature. “It’s like, ‘Honey, I shrunk the Congress,’ ” he said.

But in recent days, several of the panel’s members, who are split evenly between Senate and House members, have said they believe the committee can find areas of agreement.

The group’s 12 members are veterans who were chosen in part because of their close bonds with House and Senate leaders. They include the chairmen of the tax-writing committees in both the House and Senate, a former Democratic presidential nominee and a former budget director for President George W. Bush.

For the most part, they are considered neither firebrands given to heated rhetoric nor mavericks likely to make a deal without the approval of their respective party caucuses.

In Seattle, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the group’s Democratic chairwoman, pleaded that the panel be given time and space to do its work, telling local reporters that members need “to look each other in the eyes and find common values that we have to move forward.”

When committee members might get a chance to eyeball one another is not clear.

The committee was created as part of this month’s deal to raise the debt ceiling by at least $2 trillion in coming months. The deal included $917 billion in immediate spending cuts, and the law requires that the group start meeting by Sept. 16 to find additional savings.

In an interview Friday, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), who will serve as the panel’s Republican chairman, said he and Murray spoke for the first time late last week but had not decided when the group should begin holding hearings.

“It’s more important to get it done right than to get it done quickly,” he said.

The group must move with some speed, however, as the debt deal requires that the panel come to an agreement by Nov. 23 and that Congress approve its strategy in an expedited up-or-down vote by Christmas.

Without agreement, the government will face automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, split between domestic and defense spending, providing a painful consequence for failure not present in previous efforts.

Hensarling, Becerra, Camp and another committee member, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), served on a bipartisan debt-reduction commission chaired by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles last year. The commission came up with a plan to save about $4 trillion through entitlement cuts and increased tax revenue but foundered when a super-majority of commission members couldn’t agree to send the proposal to Congress for consideration. The supercommittee members who participated opposed the report.

But this time, Hensarling noted, mandatory cuts are coming if the panel cannot forge a deal.

“It is a highly motivating factor,” he said, calling the potential for $600 billion in cuts to the Pentagon’s budget “very alarming.”

Avoiding the triggers will not be easy, however. The committee will meet in Washington even as Republican presidential candidates urge a hard line on the primary campaign trail.

In last week’s GOP debate in Iowa, all eight candidates on the debate stage said they would reject a deal with new taxes, even if it included $10 of spending cuts for every $1 of new revenue.

But in the coming weeks, supercommittee members will be traveling their own districts, far from the hothouse of Washington. And they know that Congress is in the depths of unpopularity. One finding from a recent Washington Post poll: Only 17 percent of Americans say they are inclined to reelect their representative, the fewest to say so in three decades of polling.

Gary Chandler, vice president of a business association in Murray’s home state of Washington, said the message to Murray will be: “Let’s get this job done.”

Gene Clem, president of the Southwest Michigan Tea Party Patriots, said he would tell Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a supercommittee member, “to come up with real solutions and put the politics aside.”

Last year, Upton faced a tough primary challenge from a local Michigan tea partyer who argued that Upton was too moderate on spending issues.

Now, Clem said he wants Upton and other panel members to eliminate tax loopholes and corporate subsidies — even if that results in higher revenue for the government — provided tax rates are lowered overall and entitlements are also cut.

“Maybe that’s where the tea party needs to be,” Clem said. “To bring the two sides together where there needs to be agreement. Like the parent, to bang their heads together.”

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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