Lawmakers secretly work on bipartisan deficit grand bargain

A small, bipartisan group of lawmakers in both the House and Senate are secretly drafting deficit grand bargain legislation that cuts entitlements and raises new revenue.

Sources said that the task of actually writing the bills is well underway, but core participants in the regular meetings do not yet know when the bills can be unveiled.

ADVERTISEMENT
The core House group of roughly 10 negotiators is derived from a larger Gang of 100 lawmakers led by Reps. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Health Shuler (D-N.C.), who urged the debt supercommittee to strike a grand bargain last year.

That larger group includes GOP centrists like Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), who has said Republicans should abandon their no-new-tax-revenue pledge, as well as Tea Party-backed members like Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.).

The key test in the coming months will be to see whether the core group can get buy-in from many of the 100 members who vaguely support “going big” on the deficit once real cuts and tax increases are identified.

The talks are so sensitive that some members involved do not yet want to be identified.

Shuler, who is retiring this year, is keen to establish a legacy as a deficit cutter before leaving Congress and he is involved in the drafting effort. 

His efforts have the strong support of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who is actively meeting with individual Democrats to try to get them on board with finding a compromise that stabilizes the national debt.

The House members are working in tandem with Senate negotiators who are looking to turn the outline produced by the Senate’s Gang of Six into legislative language.

The goal of both groups is the same: make sure the debt is not growing bigger than the size of the economy.

The Obama 2013 budget does stabilize the debt in the latter half of the decade, but since it does not cut entitlements, the debt balloons again after 2020 due to Baby Boomer retirements.

Simpson said this week that a draft will not be ready in time to offer it as a budget resolution this spring. House leaders plan to bring a House GOP budget up for a vote on March 26.

A source close to the effort said the focus is on drafting now, and negotiators will address when to unveil the result later.

Simpson however said waiting until the lame-duck session to start negotiating a grand bargain does not make sense.

After the election, Congress will face deadline pressures to raise the debt ceiling, deal with expiring Bush-era tax rates and address automatic cuts triggered by the supercommittee’s failure. The conventional wisdom is that any politically painful choices like cutting Medicare or raising taxes has to wait until then.

“We can’t give up for a year on trying to address this problem. I think we have to do something,” Simpson said.

He said that he has personally talked about the project to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who failed to secure a grand bargain with President Obama last summer. But he said leadership is not driving the effort at this point.

Simpson said his involvement at this stage is mainly continuing to educate members of the need to compromise and solve the looming deficit problems sooner rather than later.

The drafting, which he is not taking the lead on, is proving difficult, he said, noting that major deficit proposals in the last year involved major holes.

The president’s fiscal commission plan, crafted by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Erskine Bowles, did not completely address healthcare and was vague on what tax breaks to eliminate.

“One of the problems with Bowles-Simpson, Domenici-Rivlin, Gang of Six is they’re all concepts,” Simpson said. “That’s different than trying to put things into legislative language.”