Leaders' deficit panel picks won’t make achieving 'grand bargain' any easier

GOP leaders in the House and Senate have picked a roster of conservative stalwarts to sit on the deficit “supercommittee,” which could make it tough for the panel to agree to a massive deficit-reduction package.


Including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) three picks, the committee so far includes no members from the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Six. That group had shown a willingness to make the kind of tradeoffs on entitlements, spending and taxes that might impress Standard and Poor’s, which downgraded the U.S. AAA credit rating last week.

The agency has indicated a deficit-reduction package of $4 trillion over 10 years would have prevented a downgrade, but it is difficult to see the emerging super-panel reaching a consensus on the tax hikes and entitlement reforms necessary to achieve such a savings.

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The lawmakers selected by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), earned a rave review Wednesday from anti-tax leader Grover Norquist, who voiced confidence the new panel will not recommend tax increases.

Taxpayer “wallets are safe,” said Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, after the GOP picks were announced.

During a Wednesday interview with MSNBC, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wy.), the co-chairman of President Obama’s debt commission, noted the absence of Gang of Six members and said the new panel appeared to be an exercise in futility.

Three of the nine members voted against the Obama debt commission plan, which would have achieved more than $4 trillion in deficit cuts over a decade.

The panel includes Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, whose focus must be on next year’s elections.

It also includes Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a favorite of House Tea Party freshmen, and a surprise choice in Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the former head of the anti-tax Club for Growth.

Toomey voted against the legislation that created the supercommittee, arguing it did not go far enough in cutting spending.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has yet to announce her picks.


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Toomey highlighted the uphill climb the panel has in his own remarks Wednesday.

He expressed hope that the supercommittee could blow past its mandate and craft a deficit reduction package that exceeds $1.5 trillion in cuts.

“If we could do more, we should,” he said. “The problem that we face is really quite large.”

He also said that while tax reform is “very difficult,” it shouldn’t be ruled out “just because it’s difficult.”

Toomey then added he would not back a deal with “some kind of big tax increase,” seemingly putting him at odds with Democrats who have called for increased taxes on the nation’s wealthiest households.

Budget experts hoping the supercommittee can come together on a large deficit-reduction package expressed hope that a couple of the panel members could work toward achieving a broader deal.

The panel includes Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former budget director in President George W. Bush’s administration. Both attended Gang of Six meetings and praised the group.

“Kerry is a great choice,” said Bob Bixby, a deficit hawk and executive director of the Concord Coalition. “He has prestige and a willingness to work across the aisle. Maybe Kerry can play the senior statesman role and help forge consensus.”

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), both opposed the Bowles-Simpson proposal, but the two have a history of working together on bipartisan issues.

Camp and Baucus just cut a deal with Obama that could allow congressional consideration of three free trade agreements.

Still, Bixby argued that the fact that two of Reid’s picks include his caucus’s campaign chair and a Simpson-Bowles dissenter “does not bode well for a ‘grand bargain.’”

A majority of the 12 members must support a package for it to win approval, meaning in theory that both parties must only convince one member across the aisle to go along with the deal.

Yet even if the supercommittee can forge a compromise, the panel's recommendations then must win in an up-or-down in both chambers of Congress, no small step in these hyper-partisan times.

“We need to have bipartisan buy-in on whatever the answer is,” Toomey said Wednesday.