Senate voteless ‘markup’ may be another blow to Bowles-Simpson

A decision by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to present the recommendations of President Obama’s fiscal commission in committee but not to bring them to a vote shows how far Congress remains from producing a debt "grand bargain," supporters and critics of the fiscal commission said Wednesday.

The fiscal commission report, authored by former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) evoked hopes of a grand bargain when it received bipartisan support of 12 of 18 commission members in 2010.

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It has since been all downhill for the Bowles-Simpson report, which recommends the politically difficult steps of raising taxes through tax reform and cutting entitlement benefits.

President Obama ignored the report when writing his 2012 budget and only 38 House members voted for a modified version of the report's recommendations last month when the lower chamber roundly rejected it.

The Senate Budget Committee debated Bowles-Simpson on Wednesday but Conrad declared that no amendments to his proposal will be made and no conclusion to the ‘markup’ would likely occur before the November elections.

Some Republicans argued that Conrad should have allowed votes to see what parts of Bowles-Simpson could have survived.

At the markup, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who voted for Bowles-Simpson as a member of the commission, implored Conrad to bring the plan up for a vote. He argued that even if it is picked apart, at least some elements could be advanced.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) a member of GOP leadership, and former Bush budget director Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also argued that Bowles-Simpson should be the starting point for an open amendment process.

Conrad and Democrats present argued that closed-door negotiations are the only way to go from here. The markup then devolved into accusations by the GOP that the Senate majority was ignoring the deficit and by Democrats that the GOP had violated the August debt deal by seeking lower spending in 2013 in the House budget.

Opponents of Bowles-Simpson on the right and left were gleeful, seeing the inability of the committee to advance the plan as another severe blow.

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist told The Hill that the"‘non-markup" was another sign that alleged proponents of Bowles-Simpson want it to remain a vague proposal rather than legislation that can be enacted.

He said the main reason for this is because once scored by number crunchers, it will be revealed to be a massive tax increase.

“This is one more time they wave it around like a bloody shirt,” Norquist said. “In reality, this is Messrs. Bowles and Simpson’s ugly mistress that they never allow anyone to see. They claim they have a beautiful mistress but they won’t write their plan down in a way that can be scored."

“To be honest, I can't think of too many more ways that the B-S plan could be rejected,” said Don Owens, of Social Security Works, which opposes the cuts to Social Security benefits in the Bowles-Simpson plan. “It's been rejected by the commission that created it, the president, the House, the Senate and most voters. Generations worked to create our Social Security, B-S dismantles it, and voters reject that.”

Steve Bell, a grand bargain proponent at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the Conrad move “may be a step backward.”

He argued that Bowles-Simpson may be publicly politicized and that the skirmish over the markup could harden positions on the plan ahead of the election.

Bill Hoagland, former Senate Budget Committee staff director, said that the Conrad move was not really a setback, since nothing was likely to happen on a grand bargain before the election anyhow. He argued that, short of a financial market meltdown, nothing would happen on the debt until 2013.

Bob Bixby, a deficit hawk at the Concord Coalition, tried to look on the bright side, saying any publicity for Bowles-Simpson was a good thing.

“The more the Bowles-Simpson framework is brought up as a serious proposal the better. The budgeteer in me wishes they would do a budget resolution in the traditional manner, but from the standpoint of promoting the Bowles-Simpson framework, it actually helps to have it laid out as the Chairman's mark without a vote right now,” he said.

Bixby said the voteless markup could yield fruit when Bush-era tax rates expire at the end of the year and Congress faces automatic spending cuts triggered by the failure of the supercommittee last year.