Charged with slashing the deficit by trillions, the new bipartisan commission could deadlock or reach a grand bargain. Is there a third option?
Speculation on a special deficit-reduction committee has focused on the prospect that members will either reach a so-called grand bargain or bog down in gridlock, but it is more likely they will do something in between.
Aides to panel members and other sources believe the members may well fall back on what could be dubbed a "not-so-grand" strategy. That would entail recommending deficit cuts identified in talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden as the base of a deal.
The recommended cuts might total less than the $1.2 trillion over 10 years in reductions the committee is being asked to achieve to avoid across-the-board cuts -- or sequestration -- of the same amount in 2013. But any panel-recommended cuts adopted by Congress will be subtracted from the total to be sequestered. By recommending, for example, $600 billion in spending cuts and reduced interest payments, the panel would halve the onerous amount required by the enforcement mechanism, or trigger, laid out in this month's legislation raising the federal debt ceiling and creating the new committee. Because half the sequestered funds under the bill would come from defense spending and entitlements would be mostly exempted, Republicans aides in particular cited the fallback option as a preferable outcome to sequestration. But Democrats, too, may see that approach as better than surrendering authority for major spending cuts to the executive branch.
As a first step, congressional leaders this week named the 12 special committee members. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday picked Democratic Reps. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and Xavier Becerra of California to serve on the committee that will now seek $1.5 trillion in additional deficit-reduction cuts by Nov. 23.
The panel of six Republicans and six Democrats will be co-chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). The other Democratic members are Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). The Republicans are House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton and House Ways and Means Chairman David Camp, both of Michigan, and Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
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Republican appointees have generally indicated they will refuse to recommend any tax revenue increases.
GOP committee members will support "the preference of their caucuses" and not agree to tax increases, said a staffer to a panel Republican. The staffer said no plan that raises taxes can pass the House.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have also indicated that they appointed committee members with the expectation they will oppose tax cuts.
"My main criteria for selecting members was to identify serious, constructive senators who are interested in achieving a result that helps to get our nation's fiscal house in order," McConnell said. "That means reforming entitlement programs that are the biggest drivers of our debt, and reforming the tax code in a way that makes us more competitive and leads to more American jobs."
GOP aides say such statements mean leaders have not ruled out tax reform, but expect committee members to oppose any plan that would raise tax revenue overall. That stance eliminates chances for a grand bargain resembling one recommended by the "Gang of Six" senators, or a somewhat similar approach discussed at one point by the White House and Boehner.