By Walter Alarkon - 03/01/10 11:00 AM EST
Senior House Democrats are changing their opinion of a bipartisan debt commission now that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is on board.
When deficit hawks first floated the fiscal commission in 2007, Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House committee chairmen said they didn't want to cede their power over spending, tax and entitlement policies to a panel that would include outside experts. But now that President Barack Obama has created the panel, Pelosi and most of her allies see it as a helpful tool to deal with unsustainable deficits.
The commission of 12 lawmakers and six outside experts is aiming to produce a fiscal reform package that would help rein in the $12 trillion debt. Obama is asking Congress to consider it after the mid-term elections.
Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have agreed to bring the fiscal panel's recommendations straight to the House and Senate floors for votes, a move Pelosi and committee chairmen once resisted. Pelosi, however, will only allow votes on the fiscal package if the Senate passes it first, a Democratic aide said.
A critical factor in her shift to backing a panel was the Senate's commitment to a pay-as-you-go law, the aide said. Fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats made the statutory pay-go measure that requires any new non-discretionary spending to be offset by tax increases or spending cuts a top priority, and Pelosi pledged to push the upper chamber to adopt it. Congress passed the pay-go law and Obama signed the pay-go law last month.
Top House Democrats' support for the panel is a marked shift. In 2008, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and other appropriators voted down an amendment to a spending bill that would have created the commission. Pelosi and committee chairmen prevented other votes on the panel.
"I have some real reservations about fast-track procedures that bypass Ways and Means and Commerce and go straight to the floor, more or less unamendable, voted up or down," House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) said in 2008. "I think a lot of members will look upon this as an over-delegation of authority."
Spratt told The Hill last week that Obama's panel is different because it consists mostly of lawmakers. The version initially proposed by House centrists had an equal number of outside experts and members of Congress.
"When you do it with congressional participation, the members emerge from that having made compromises and hard decisions," Spratt said.
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the leading candidate to become chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said the commission will make it easier to make necessary fiscal fixes to allow entitlement and spending programs to survive.
"Basically, if it's the alternative of not having the program or making adjustments, people will say let's make the adjustments so the programs survive," Dicks said.
Top Democrats stress Congress has the power to reject any commission proposal.
"All they can do is make recommendations," said House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). "That certainly doesn't mean it's going to be adopted."
Some Democrats are still withholding their support. Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said he's "uncomfortable" with the panel. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is worried the commission will shift the focus away from needed investments in education, healthcare and job creation.
"It's all about cut, cut, cut," he said.
With the commission now a reality, Grijalva and other Democratic commission skeptics are jockeying for appointments. House Democrats will get to choose three of the panel's members.
"We're going to ask for a progressive there that defends domestic issues and looks at Defense [spending] with an objective eye," Grijalva said.