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Senators feel left out of debt talks

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 BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying World Freedom Caucus wants budget reforms attached to debt limit increase Trey Gowdy announces retirement from Congress MORE (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 BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying World Freedom Caucus wants budget reforms attached to debt limit increase Trey Gowdy announces retirement from Congress MORE.

“I would like everything to be more public, always,” said Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallWHIP LIST: Shutdown looms as Senate lacks votes to pass House spending bill Dems harden line on stopgap measure Overnight Finance: Shutdown drama grips Capitol | White House backs short-term spending bill | Mulvaney begins consumer bureau shake-up MORE (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 WarnerMark Robert WarnerRegulators push for 'coordinated' approach to bitcoin trading House funding bill includes bipartisan Medicare reforms Overnight Tech: Mulvaney reportedly froze Equifax hack probe | Dems want new restrictions on Comcast-NBC | NJ gov signs net neutrality order | Senate confirms patent chief MORE (D-Va.) has met with a small group of Republican colleagues for months to build consensus around a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan. 

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPentagon: War in Afghanistan will cost billion in 2018 K.T. McFarland officially withdrawn as nominee for ambassador K.T. McFarland withdraws as nominee for ambassador MORE (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 SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDems pick up deep-red legislative seat in Missouri Grassley to Sessions: Policy for employees does not comply with the law New immigration policy leaves asylum seekers in the lurch MORE (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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems confront Kelly after he calls some immigrants 'lazy' McConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Defense: Latest on spending fight - House passes stopgap with defense money while Senate nears two-year budget deal | Pentagon planning military parade for Trump | Afghan war will cost B in 2018 MORE (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 RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump must send Russia powerful message through tougher actions McCain, Coons immigration bill sparks Trump backlash Taking a strong stance to protect election integrity MORE (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 ReidHarry Mason ReidTo end sugar subsidies, conservatives can't launch a frontal attack House presses Senate GOP on filibuster reform A pro-science approach to Yucca Mountain appropriations MORE (D-Nev.) should be at the table. 

“I’d always like to see Harry Reid at the table,” agreed Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinOrrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate Democrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (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 LewJacob (Jack) Joseph LewOvernight Finance: Hatch announces retirement from Senate | What you can expect from new tax code | Five ways finance laws could change in 2018 | Peter Thiel bets big on bitcoin Ex-Obama Treasury secretary: Tax cuts 'leaving us broke' Senator demands answers from DOJ on Russia bribery probe MORE 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 BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Billionaire Steyer to push for Dem House push Billionaire Steyer announces million for Dem House push MORE (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.