By Peter Schroeder - 08/10/11 04:34 PM EDT
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) will serve as the de facto Tea Party voice on Congress's "supercommittee" following his surprise appointment to the deficit-reduction panel.
The freshman senator has taken on an outsized role in Congress since being sworn into office eight months ago, and now will serve as a conservative anchor to the panel charged with finding more than a trillion dollars in deficit cuts.
“This has to be done in a cooperative fashion,” he said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “It has to be an exercise in finding common ground.”
In fact, he touted his support for eliminating “indefensible” tax incentives for the ethanol industry as proof of bipartisan openings might may exist, especially when it comes to taxes.
“There are a lot of opportunities in the tax code to make it much more sensible and to do it in a way that encourages economic growth,” he said. However, he said he would not support “some kind of big tax increase” as part of the supercommittee’s recommendations.
An actual agreement from the panel would be “much, much preferred” to the trigger of cuts that would ensue if the panel fails to strike a deal, he added.
Toomey’s appointment earned quick praise from conservatives.
"Senator Toomey is a staunch advocate for limited government and he understands that prosperity comes from economic freedom," said Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth — which Toomey previously headed. "Conservatives should be excited that someone of Senator Toomey’s caliber will be at the center of the debate over how to restore America."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced Toomey's appointment to the group on Wednesday, alongside Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also named his picks, tapping Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Fred Upton (R-Texas). They will join Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) picks of Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has yet to name her picks.
Toomey's name sticks out from the GOP roster, which largely consists of high-ranking members of the party. Portman has offered praise for efforts by the "Gang of Six," leading some to wonder if he could serve as a bridge between Democrats and Republicans on the panel. And Kyl was open to revenue-neutral tax reform or raising some user fees as part of deficit talks led by Vice President Biden.
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Meanwhile, Toomey, a former bond trader, has carved out a niche as a loud conservative voice in the Senate. He put forward his own budget proposal that he claimed would have balanced the budget in nine years — the fastest put forward by any lawmaker.
And he emerged as a major dissenter in the debt-limit debate, functioning as a persistent thorn in Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's side.
As Geithner warned of economic catastrophe without a debt-limit boost, Toomey insisted for months that a default was not a guarantee if the debt limit were not raised. Rather, he maintained that the government would have ample funds to make interest payments without additional borrowing, as he and Geithner traded barbs over the idea in a lengthy bout of letter-writing.
In fact, Toomey voted against the deal to raise the debt limit that created the supercommittee where he will now serve.
McConnell touted Toomey's commitment to conservative principles in naming him to the panel.
"Sen. Toomey has demonstrated a deep understanding of fiscal matters and is a leader on budget and deficit issues," he said. "His years of experience in the financial sector and on the House Budget Committee will also serve him well in his new role, along with an unwavering commitment to the principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility."
After being named, Toomey called the supercommittee's work "vital."
"In light of last week’s events, with the nation’s credit downgrade and the deep drop in the markets, it is all the more imperative that this committee do its job effectively and come up with a product that both tackles our debt crisis and can help revive our failing economy," he said, adding he was "hopeful that we can produce a proposal that seriously reduces our nation’s deficits and grows our economy."
"We need a solution that achieves the dual goals of putting our government on a path toward a balanced budget, and maximizing economic growth and enabling us to create the jobs we badly need. I remain committed to both of these vital goals.”
If the panel actually can find areas of compromise, Toomey's role could be muted, as the group just needs a simple majority to move forward its recommendations.
But if the group devolves into partisan bickering, as many suspect, Toomey could serve as a loud voice to counterbalance Murray, who is heading Senate Democrats' reelection efforts.
—Updated at 2 p.m.