By Alexander Bolton - 12/09/09 05:01 PM EST
Centrist Democratic senators are threatening to block an effort to
raise the federal debt limit unless Congress commits to a
deficit-reduction task force.
At least 10 senators, led by Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), say they will torpedo the must-pass legislation, which would give the Obama administration more than $1.5 trillion in loans that officials say they need to get through 2010, unless leaders agree to the bipartisan fiscal task force. The task force would have authority to force congressional votes to cut soaring federal deficits.
Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Mark Warner (Va.) have backed Conrad’s call for a task force on debt.
The centrist Democrats are at odds with Democratic leaders such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who has opposed creating such a panel because it would take power out of the hands of the broader Congress.
But the budget-minded centrists have their leaders and the Obama administration in a tough position because the government is starved for cash to pay its mounting obligations.
“Treasury has told me directly that they can’t get past Dec. 31 without some extension of the debt limit,” Conrad said.
Conrad and Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the ranking Republican on the Budget panel, unveiled their proposal to create a bipartisan fiscal task force on Wednesday.
The budget-cutting panel would be created by statute and would consist of 18 members: 10 Democrats and 8 Republicans serving in Congress or the administration.
They would be tasked with addressing the “unsustainable long-term fiscal imbalance” and would have broad power to cut programs or raise taxes to cut the federal deficit.
Fourteen of the commission’s 18 members must agree to a report that would be submitted for a vote in the Senate and House after the 2010 election. Under the legislation proposed by Conrad and Gregg, the cost-cutting recommendations would receive fast-track consideration in both chambers and would not be subject to amendment.
Twenty-four senators have co-sponsored the proposal to create the budget task force: nine Democrats, 14 Republicans, and one Independent, Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.).
“What we have outlined here has the best prospects of success but what is absolutely essential is that there be a special process, that it be bipartisan and that it lead to an assured vote on the work product of the task force,” Conrad said.
Conrad said lawmakers would allow short-term extensions of the debt limit so the government does not default on its debt. But Conrad made clear they would not vote to approve a long-term extension of the debt-limit.
“Many of our group have said very clearly they’re not going to agree to a debt limit extension without something like this being included,” he said.
Administration officials have told Conrad they expect to need more than $1.5 trillion in debt authority to get through next year.
A Congressional Budget Office estimate released in August estimated a $1.38 trillion federal deficit for 2010.