Senators feel left out of debt talks

Senators from both parties are frustrated that the upper chamber has no representative in the talks to strike a deal on reducing the deficit. 

The negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have left out a legislative body filled with big egos and type-A personalities. 

The standing joke about the Senate is that each of its 100 members sees a potential president when he or she looks in the mirror. It’s a chamber full of ambitious leaders who crave a chance to have an impact on the nation’s future.

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But at a moment when Congress is about to make major decisions affecting tax policy and entitlement programs for years to come, senators find themselves oddly disconnected from the process. It’s not even clear to them how much input their leaders have in the secret talks between Obama and Boehner.

“I would like everything to be more public, always,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). 

Udall said when former President Reagan and Congress tackled broad tax and spending reforms in the 1980s, “there were always many more people involved, chairmen and committee members called to the White House talks.”

“We’re better off always doing that,” he said. 

Senators on both sides of the aisle fear Obama and Boehner will reach a deal shortly before the end of the month and stick them with a take-it-or-leave-it vote to avoid the fiscal cliff, which economists warn could send the nation back into recession if Congress fails to act.

“There’s no transparent, democratic process at all —just a few people in a room — which I think they’ll intentionally draw out until the last day and then drop on us so there’s no time for debate, not only to keep us out of it but to keep the American people out of it,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). 

“It’s a very bad process and we shouldn’t be doing it,” he added. “It’s very frustrating.”

Some senators have worked feverishly to have an influence on the talks. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has met with a small group of Republican colleagues for months to build consensus around a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan. 

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) drafted a 242-page bill to reform entitlement programs and on Wednesday proposed legislation to swap nearly $1 trillion in mandatory spending cuts for an equal increase in the debt ceiling. 

But there’s little evidence Obama or Boehner have noticed. 

George Washington first described the Senate as a cooling saucer; the Founding Fathers envisioned it carefully deliberating on legislation from the House before the president signed it into law. Senators today grumble they have been almost entirely cut out of one of the most important policy discussions of the era. 

“There won’t be any time to cool because they’ll wait until the last minute and pop [a deal] on us and say if we don’t vote for it, the whole country is going to collapse under the fiscal cliff,” said DeMint, who recently announced he will leave the Senate to head the Heritage Foundation.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, says he has no sense of the direction of the talks. 

“We around here are speculating about what’s going on in secret negotiations between the Speaker of the House and the president of the United States and the Senate might as well be fishing somewhere,” he said. “Senators talk and pontificate and we have little discussions but I don’t see any of that really impacting the negotiations.”

Senators realize they can’t all be included in private negotiations, but think their respective leaders, at least, should have a bigger role. 

“I’m supposed to be making decisions; I haven’t given my proxy to Speaker Boehner,” Sessions said. 

“Obviously, [Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is] our leader and I think he has a lot to bring to those discussions and hopefully at some point they’ll allow him to be more engaged in that regard,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). 

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he does not know what’s happening in the Obama-Boehner meetings and added Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) should be at the table. 

“I’d always like to see Harry Reid at the table,” agreed Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). 

Reid was not pleased with his limited role in the 2011 debt-limit talks. At one point, he berated then-White House Budget Director Jack Lew for not keeping him in the loop: “I’m the Senate majority leader — why don’t I know about this deal?”

Harkin said he understands that it will be easier to reach a deal if the negotiations are conducted primarily between Obama and Boehner. He accepts the structure of the talks, but says the Senate will have to review the deal before it’s finalized. 

“At some point when they are basically through, before they shake hands, I would expect the Senate to at least converse with the leadership, to sit down with leadership and say, ‘Here’s the outline of the plan,’ ” Harkin said. 

House Democrats acknowledge they are also in the dark. 

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, told reporters Tuesday that they know as much as he does about the developments.

“I wish I knew more than you did about the negotiations,” he said. “I don’t.”

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However, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that she is satisfied with the White House’s level of communication: “The president knows our views, he shares our values, we feel confident in any negotiation he takes the lead in.”

The closed nature of the negotiations could produce an unwelcome surprise — both for left-wing and right-wing senators— when a deal finally becomes public. 

A group of liberal Democratic senators have vowed to oppose any deal that raises the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, a reform Obama did not rule out during an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters.

“That’s a nonstarter for me,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “I’ll tell you why: It’s very costly to Medicare, because when you take the healthiest people out, the costs on everybody else go up. There will be increases in their premiums.”

Boxer said she would prefer to go over the fiscal cliff rather than support a bad deal. 

Meanwhile, DeMint and Rubio have indicated they would oppose a deal that increases taxes. 

“I continue to say that the best way to generate more revenue for government is through economic growth, through more taxpayers, not through more taxes,” said Rubio.