By Bernie Becker, Peter Schroeder and Erik Wasson - 10/09/13 12:29 AM EDT
Democrats and Republicans who served on the 2011 supercommittee shuddered Tuesday as lawmakers debated bringing the concept back to life.
“I pray to God every day that I will never be put on another supercommittee,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) told reporters.
“Not again. Not again. Oh my gosh,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said. “Having served as a member of the so-called supercommittee, there was nothing super about it. And it was just punting. It’s another way to get out of doing what you should.”
Just days before a debt-limit deadline, House GOP leaders rolled out a plan for 20 lawmakers, in both parties and both chambers, to form a working group dealing with deficit and spending issues.
But the idea of any special committee on the debt set off alarm bells for some of the 12 lawmakers who served on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which crashed and burned after falling well short of its deficit-reduction goal.
Camp and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) both have said that working together on the supercommittee helped cement a bipartisan partnership that saw the two chairmen barnstorm the country this year in support of tax reform.
But in general, members from both parties have described serving on the joint panel as a frustrating experience and even a missed opportunity, with the dozen members unable to overcome intractable differences on tax and spending issues.
Two supercommittee members have since left Congress, with former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) taking over as secretary of State and former Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) retiring. But the other 10 remain in Congress, with many of them committee chairmen or members of their party’s leadership.
The House passed a measure on Tuesday setting up the latest deficit-reduction panel, which would be entrusted with dealing with the debt ceiling, 2014 spending bills and reforms to mandatory spending programs.
House Republicans and Senate Democrats would likely each have six members on the panel, with the minority party in each chamber getting four representatives.
A majority of members from each chamber would have to get behind any plan, essentially ensuring a bipartisan product.
That all means the committee — dubbed a “working group” by GOP aides — has narrower authority than the 2011 supercommittee, which also held discussions about overhauling the tax code.
Perhaps even more importantly, there would be no fiscal consequences if the newest deficit panel were to fail to reach an agreement. The failure of the 2011 supercommittee brought about sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that key lawmakers in both parties are trying to roll back.
After the GOP released the plan, top congressional Democrats slammed the lack of an enforcing mechanism.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), both supercommittee veterans, added that Republicans were trying to take revenue increases — one of the key differences between the parties — off the table.
Asked about the possible return of a supercommittee, Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, put her hand over her heart and sighed.
“I remember that as well as anybody. And it was very difficult and challenging,” said Murray, who co-chaired the supercommittee with Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).
“Can you imagine us trying to do a supercommittee while government is shut down? I just don’t see how that plays.”
Baucus, who has helped lead the charge for a clean debt-limit increase, rolled his eyes when asked about the potential of another special panel.
“I want to see what it is before I make anything of it,” Baucus said, before adding: “The last one didn’t do very well.”
Even both former and current Capitol Hill aides, all of whom worked on the supercommittee, were left puzzled by the newest proposal.
“We’re discussing the idea of a bipartisan supercommittee staff reunion, where we reminisce and settle scores live on C-SPAN,” one former staffer told The Hill.
To be clear, the new panel has little chance to get off the ground, with the White House quickly issuing a veto threat. Still, Camp has for years sought a path forward for tax and entitlement reform, and has supported attaching instructions for tax reform to a budget deal. A new debt working group, however, would at the very least complicate those efforts — if not totally butt in on the chairman’s portfolio.
Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.), a senior Ways and Means member, said he would be more worried about that possibility if he saw the new GOP proposal as more than a “messaging bill.”
“We’ve done three years of work on tax reform. I want to make sure that doesn’t get tossed by the wayside, by some group that hasn’t done all this groundwork. Same thing with entitlements,” Boustany told The Hill.
“If we’re going to deal with those things thoughtfully down the line, it’s got to be with the committee of jurisdiction.”
Other supercommittee Republicans weren’t quite as critical, underscoring that GOP leaders will be seeking support from members discouraged by their experience two years ago. Some GOP lawmakers who didn’t serve on the previous panel also had a more open mind about the idea.
Asked if he’d be willing to take another turn on a debt panel, Hensarling told The Hill that “I’d like to serve my country in any way I can.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) added that he was “wary personally” after 2011, but that another go-round might be worth a try.
“The bottom line is that I believe that the debt limit is an opportunity to get to the underlying problem, whether it’s tax reform or entitlement reform,” Portman said.
But Portman’s fellow Republican, Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), wasn’t even willing to go that far.
“I don’t really have anything for you on that,” Toomey said as he hurried away from a reporter.