Latest picks for debt panel spark some pessimism

Posted Aug. 10, 2011, at 9:53 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 11, 2011, at 11 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Republicans named a mix of partisans and pragmatists on Wednesday to the new congressional committee charged with striking a debt-cutting compromise. While members of both parties expressed urgency over controlling surging budget shortfalls, others were pessimistic that the bipartisan panel would overcome deep political divides.

With nine of the committee’s 12 members selected, Washington began calculating whether the faltering economy and chaotic financial markets could spur the panel to produce a bipartisan plan trimming $1.5 trillion from the government’s debt over the coming decade. Failure — a real possibility, considering GOP opposition to tax increases and Democratic hostility to cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits — would trigger automatic spending cuts in hundreds of defense and domestic programs.

“You wouldn’t want to be in there while the ‘Dirty Dozen’ are up to their work, because, boy, I tell you, the hair and eyeballs will fly all over the floor,” said former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., who co-chaired a bipartisan deficit commission that recommended trillions in savings last year.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, named conservative Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, a rising force among House Republicans, as GOP co-chairman of the powerful new panel. Boehner also appointed House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, a pair of veteran Michigan Republicans, to the committee.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., named confidante and No. 2 Senate GOP leader Jon Kyl of Arizona, tabbing a lawmaker who is retiring in 2013 and is a solid conservative. He also appointed GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, elected last year with tea party backing, and fellow freshman Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a former budget director and trade representative for President George W. Bush who is viewed as a possible vice presidential pick next year.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., chose Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who runs the Senate Democratic campaign arm, as Democratic co-chair of the debt committee. He also appointed 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., a centrist who strayed to back Bush’s 2001 tax cuts, to the new panel.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has yet to name her three members but is required to do so by next week.

Boehner said his appointees are trusted leaders “who understand the gravity of our debt crisis.” He acknowledged the two sides’ differences but said the committee provided an opportunity to “come together to do what’s best for our country.”

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama expects members of the committee to “act seriously.” He reiterated Obama’s call for “a balanced approach,” which means a mix of spending cuts and revenue tax increases.

Elsewhere around the capital, critics raised questions about whether the panel would succeed.

They noted that none of the Senate’s so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators who proposed trillions in spending cuts and tax boosts this year, was named to the panel. And while Baucus, Camp and Hensarling were members of the bipartisan deficit commission that Simpson headed with Democrat Erskine Bowles, critics pointed out that all three had opposed that group’s final recommendations.

“I’m a little discouraged today,” said G. William Hoagland, a former top GOP Senate aide who now lobbies for Cigna Corp. “As of today, I don’t see a path forward to get a majority vote from those members appointed so far.”

With the panel split evenly between the two parties, seven of the 12 members will have to approve a debt-cutting plan before it can be sent to Congress for votes. That means at least one lawmaker would have to agree to a plan backed by the opposite party.

The committee has until Thanksgiving to complete its work and Congress until Christmas to vote on it, with a presidential and congressional election year looming when the calendar flips to 2012.

That will produce pressure on panel members that will be “pretty extreme” to follow party leaders’ policies, said J. David Hoppe, a former top Senate GOP aide who is now president of the lobbying firm Quinn, Gillespie and Associates. “And it’s going to be there all the time, every day.”

While Baucus, Portman and Upton are widely viewed as among the more pragmatic lawmakers picked for the panel, critics said it was hard to imagine them abandoning their parties on such a high-profile issue. Hensarling and Toomey are considered two of Congress’ most conservative members and the least likely to budge on tax cuts. Kerry is a liberal who seems unlikely to consent to benefit cuts while Kyl, Murray and Hensarling are party leaders in their chambers.

“These are nine people who are there to protect established positions as they walk in the door,” said Stanley Collender, a partner with Qorvis Communications and a former Democratic congressional budget aide.

Underscoring the views that panel members bring to their new posts, Camp said in an interview Wednesday that raising taxes “would hurt our economy and our ability to create jobs.”

“I think the focus needs to be in reducing spending. When you’re in debt, you need to look at spending,” he said.

Toomey, the only member of the panel so far who voted against the bipartisan bill that established the debt-cutting committee, told reporters that while all big benefit programs should be considered for savings, “I’m not interested in some kind of big tax increase.”

The head of a bipartisan group that advocates a balanced budget said the inclusion of ardent conservatives and liberals on the new panel might help because if a deal is struck, they could help win support from their colleagues.

“Many of these people are the exact people you would need to sell it,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “But it’s certainly not going to be an easy four months” as the committee tries reaching a deal in the first place, she said.

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Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher, Ben Feller, Andrew Taylor and Tim Raths in Washington and Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this report.

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