Sens. Alexander, Bennet give leaders emergency plan to avoid 'fiscal cliff'

Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have given their leaders an emergency backup plan to keep Congress from plunging off the "fiscal cliff" at year’s end.

Bennet and Alexander have submitted a three-part plan to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to keep as a last resort in case negotiations with President Obama fall short.

Bennet’s participation is notable because he is one of Reid’s top choices to take the job of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman.

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The break-the-glass emergency proposal would make a substantial down payment toward deficit reduction during the lame-duck session, create a streamlined process to reach a broader deal next year and implement a default deficit-reduction plan if Congress still cannot break a stalemate in 2013.

“It simply pushes the pause button on all the elements of the fiscal cliff, extends everything for a year and then gives us six months in which to reform entitlements and reform taxes and reduce the debt,” said Alexander.

Alexander said the plan he hammered out with Bennet provides a framework for leaders, who would need to fill in important details, such as the size and substance of the down payment.

After Congress passed the down payment in the lame-duck session, it would have until mid-April to pass a broader deficit-reduction package under the Alexander-Bennet framework.

If nothing happened under regular order by mid-April, the Senate Budget Committee would receive special power to move a deficit plan through the chamber. The framework calls for giving the Budget Committee reconciliation powers to move a package without first passing a Senate budget resolution.

The reconciliation process allows the majority party to pass legislation affecting the deficit with fewer than 60 votes, but the Senate ordinarily must first pass a budget resolution. That requirement would be waived under the Alexander-Bennet plan, according to a source familiar with the proposal.

“First, the authorizing committees have their chance to do it in regular order. If they don’t get a budget agreement done by April 15, then we give special powers to the Budget Committee,” said Alexander.

If a streamlined process also failed to pass a significant debt package next year, a so-called backstop would go into effect. The backstop would cut hundreds of billions of dollars from the deficit through a combination of collecting more in tax revenues and cutting spending.

Alexander and Bennet have not agreed on the details of the backstop.

Alexander said if the Budget Committee could not achieve a breakthrough despite gaining special powers, “we enact a backstop in the lame duck that becomes law and that’s a big blank right now.”

One tricky element of the Alexander-Bennet framework is that lawmakers would have to decide on the makeup of the backstop before passing it in December. Since it would be the default deficit-reduction option in the 113th Congress, it could be difficult to muster consensus on it.

Their proposal is similar to one developed by the Bipartisan Policy Center, but not identical. The center’s plan would not have lawmakers decide on the details of the backstop before passing emergency legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff.

Alexander suggested a variety of Senate plans could fill the role of the backstop.

“That could be the Corker bill, it could be the Toomey bill, it could be the Gang of Six bill,” he said. “That’s a little bit above our pay grade to say what that should be.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has circulated his own deficit-reduction plan among nearly two dozen colleagues, working the phones diligently after Election Day. Corker has signaled he will hold off on his plan in order to give Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) room to negotiate.

Corker has said his plan would reform the tax code and entitlements.

“A bill of under 350 pages could solve this whole thing. It’s just not that hard,” said Corker. “I’ve written a bill that obviously I’m quietly talking to folks about.

“It’s a bill that we crafted in our office and spent 11 months writing,” he said.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) offered a deficit-reduction plan last year while serving on the supercommittee set up by the Budget Control Act.

Toomey’s plan would achieve $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, including $750 billion in spending cuts and $500 billion in new revenues, through “pro-growth individual tax reform.”

Toomey’s blueprint called for $250 billion in new tax revenues under a traditional scoring model.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called it a “breakthrough” at the time.

The Gang of Six, which includes Durbin and Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), has spent months negotiating a bipartisan bill based on the work of the Simpson-Bowles commission.

Some critics, such as Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, are skeptical they will unveil a legislative text because of fundamental disagreements over tax increases and entitlement reform.

A source familiar with the negotiations between Bennet and Alexander said the lawmakers have not agreed whether their plan should call for a significant overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid.

“What I want is a result that reforms entitlement spending. I understand that to get that we’ll have to produce some revenue,” said Alexander.