Gregg: Fiscal panel bill lacks the votes

There are not enough votes in the Senate to create a bipartisan commission to cut the federal debt, according to a key lawmaker.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) told The Hill on Monday that the proposal he’s pushing with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) doesn’t have the 60 Senate votes necessary to pass. An amendment creating the fiscal commission will get a full Senate vote next week during a debate over a bill raising the debt limit.

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Gregg and Conrad’s plan would set up a process to come up with a bipartisan fiscal reform package that would be ensured a vote on the House and Senate floors. The commission’s supporters, mainly centrist lawmakers in both chambers, have said that the special legislative process is necessary to any fiscal reform because lawmakers aren’t willing to consider the politically perilous tax increases and spending cuts necessary to bring down the deficit, which hit a record $1.4 trillion last year. The Senate bill has 33 co-sponsors in addition to Gregg and Conrad.

Gregg blasted opponents of the plan, saying that they “kill everything at the starting line.”

The fact that the proposal is being attacked by “people on the right and the left just means that the approach will work,” Gregg said.

The plan hasn’t received strong backing from leaders in both parties.

Conservative lawmakers and groups have been wary of the commission because it may lead to tax increases.

Neither Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) nor House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has fully backed the commission. A similar version of Conrad and Gregg’s plan is being pushed by Blue Dog Democrats and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in the House.

McConnell said the focus should be on reforming entitlement programs, according to his spokesman, Josh Holmes. Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, said the commission “should not be used as an excuse to avoid making tough, responsible choices right now.”

Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist’s anti-tax group, has urged lawmakers to vote against creating the special panel because its proposed reforms would include tax increases.

Meanwhile, groups on the left worry that it’s an undemocratic approach that will lead to spending cuts.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled last month that the Senate must first agree to a pay-as-you-go law to constrain the rise in mandatory spending before the House takes up any plan for a commission. Pelosi and other House committee chairmen had previously opposed the commission approach, arguing that it takes power away from elected officials.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) backs the Conrad-Gregg approach.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has argued that the commission isn’t necessary since Democrats have already shown, by moving forward with sweeping healthcare reform that is projected to reduce the deficit, that they can tackle contentious fiscal issues.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office said that Reid is working with Conrad to try to get leaders of both parties to work together on fiscal reform, but Reid has stopped short of fully backing Conrad’s proposal.

Gregg said he plans to press on with the issue to force the commission’s opponents to confront the debt issue.

“Everybody who’s a naysayer needs to be tested,” Gregg said.

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The Obama administration is considering an executive order that would create a fiscal commission, according to administration documents obtained by CNN. But any commission ordered by President Barack Obama would lack the statutory force that would ensure the commission’s proposals get votes in Congress.

Gregg said that he couldn’t support a weaker commission enacted for “political purposes that would give the administration cover” from criticism that it hasn’t done enough to bring down the deficit.

It’s unclear how Conrad and other Democratic backers of the commission would respond if lawmakers reject the special panel. Conrad, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and a group of about a dozen other Democratic senators said that the enactment of a special fiscal process was key to their votes on the debt limit increase. The federal debt limit, now at $12.4 trillion, must be raised by mid-February to prevent the government from defaulting.

Conrad’s office didn’t respond to a question by press time.

Independent fiscal experts said that the commission won’t have much chance of succeeding even if it’s enacted, because the lawmakers have fundamental disagreements on how to stop the flow of red ink.

“You can’t take the politics out of an inherently political situation and expect it to come back and be pure without the politics,” said Stan Collender, a former Democratic congressional budget aide and now a partner at Qorvis Communications.