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How Super Is The Deficit-Cutting Committee?

Filed by KOSU News in Politics.
August 22, 2011

Twelve lawmakers. More than $1 trillion to shave off the deficit. One Thanksgiving deadline. Can they do it?

The debt-ceiling deal struck earlier this summer created a panel of six Republicans and six Democrats — dubbed the “supercommittee” — to find ways to reduce the deficit. If they can’t, “sequestration” — a slew of automatic spending cuts — kicks in. While there are high hopes in Washington for the committee’s success, skeptics have trouble seeing how the chosen lawmakers will navigate around the main sticking points: Democrats seem set on protecting Medicare and Medicaid and see increasing revenues as essential. Republicans would prefer to lower taxes if anything and want to make cuts to the big entitlement programs. NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving assesses the members, what they bring to the table and how they voted on the final debt-ceiling deal.

Senate Democrats

Patty Murray, Washington (co-chairwoman)

Who she is: A senator since 1993, Murray is chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which makes her a key member of the party leadership in the Senate. She was just elected to a fourth term in 2010, running largely on her record of bringing federal funds back to Washington state. But she is regarded as a potential fulcrum for compromise and has reached out personally to contact each of the other 11 members of the new committee. Her low-key and utterly nonthreatening persona may also enable her to defuse some of the enormous tension and pressure surrounding the committee’s mission and meetings.

What she brings to the table: Murray, 60, was deeply involved in the battle to raise the debt ceiling and serves on the Budget and Appropriations committees. Her familiarity with both the particulars of federal spending and the constituencies involved will be a great technical asset for the committee. She is also the only woman on the committee from either chamber or party, which is an added responsibility in its own right.

Where she stands: As the head of the DSCC, Murray will be raising money and fighting to hold on to Democrats’ majority in the Senate in the 2012 elections — a decidedly partisan position. And she’s a strong supporter of Medicare, Social Security and veterans’ benefits. But Murray also signed a letter earlier this year asking President Obama to discuss “discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform” to lower the deficit.

How she voted on the debt-ceiling bill: Yes

Max Baucus, Montana

Who he is: First elected to his state Legislature in 1972, Baucus has been a senator since 1978 and for a decade the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee. He represents a state that has benefited greatly from federal spending but largely turned against the government in election cycles since the Reagan years. Baucus himself has survived largely by identifying himself with tax cuts, such as the 2001 “Bush tax cut” package he helped steer through the Senate. He was part of the “Biden talks” negotiating team that tried to make a deal with Republicans on the debt ceiling and deficit reduction earlier this summer.

What he brings to the table: Baucus has a reputation for working with Republicans, especially his ranking Republican on Finance, Charles Grassley of Iowa. Baucus made a major effort to reach a deal with Grassley and others prior to introducing his version of the health care bill in 2009. But those talks collapsed when the GOP decided to oppose the bill on principle. Baucus chairs the Senate committee with responsibility for taxes and Medicare and Social Security, so he is a pivotal figure in the negotiations.

Where he stands: Baucus has had sympathy for conservative positions from the perspective of a longtime Montana ranching family and sympathy for government programs from the vantage point of an elected Democratic legislator for nearly 40 years. Ultimately, he will have to reconcile these instincts in these deliberations, and how he does so may tip the balance in the committee’s final product.

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: Yes

John Kerry, Massachusetts

Who he is: Kerry, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, has served in the Senate since 1985. He was the Democratic nominee for president in 2004.

What he brings to the table: Kerry has name recognition from his presidential bid and from his work as chairman of Foreign Relations. He offers the perspective of a senior member who is interested in the global and long-term picture. It is also important that he is not up for re-election until 2014, so he is relatively secure. And he has credibility as a deal-maker, having worked with Republicans like John McCain of Arizona through their long years together in the Senate and having sought bipartisan consensus on his committee.

Where he stands: Kerry, 67, has generally been an orthodox Democrat on the tax-and-spend issues, serving on the Finance Committee and involving himself in the tough issues of Medicare and Social Security. He can be expected to hold out for revenues in some form but be willing to tackle the health care cost curve as well. If Kerry is not involved in a large-scale compromise on the committee it is safe to say there will be no such compromise.

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: Yes

Senate Republicans

Jon Kyl, Arizona

Who he is: Kyl is the No. 2 GOP leader in the Senate, serving as the Republican whip. At 69, he’s been a senator since 1995 and recently announced he would not seek re-election in 2012. Kyl has been less well-known than fellow Arizonan John McCain but has been more trusted by conservatives and more consistently in tune with his party in the Senate. He was part of the “Biden talks” earlier this summer, walking out when, he said, the Democrats would not stop talking about a revenue component in the deal.

What he brings to the table: In theory, at least, Kyl has the freedom of maneuver granted by retirement. He can speak his mind and vote his beliefs and await the judgment of history. But he is also the personal representative on this panel of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, who appointed him. And McConnell is going to suffer with his Senate Republican confreres if the committee produces something that they don’t like. On the other hand, if Kyl can see daylight in a deal that Democrats will accept, he would be the key to getting Senate Republicans to back it.

Where he stands: Kyl has as strong a record on taxes and debt as any member of the Senate Finance Committee. When he was in the House in the 1980s, he considered Dick Cheney, then the Republican whip, to be his mentor. He will be the de facto leader of the Senate Republicans on this panel and can be expected to hold the line on revenues, insisting that the $1 trillion or more the panel produces be found on the spending side. But he will also want to avoid sequestration, which would dig deep into the defense spending that has often been Kyl’s top priority in Congress.

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: Yes

Rob Portman, Ohio

Who he is: First elected to the Senate last year, Portman, 55, served as U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush — all after six terms in the House and a stint as White House associate counsel in the administration of the first President Bush. He may be the least flashy member of the Class of 2010 in the Senate, yet by many assessments the most able. Known for quiet competence and old-fashioned conservatism, he succeeded in his first bid for the Senate with 57 percent of the vote.

What he brings to the table: Portman may represent the best chance the panel has for winning a Republican vote for a final package, at least among the Senate members. Before he began his rise in appointive and elected office, Portman was a lawyer with the Washington firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, a bipartisan powerhouse in lobbying and deal-making in the capital. And while Portman surely knows the preferences of his party in Congress and nationally, he may have the electoral security and personal resources to be part of a deficit-reduction compromise.

Where he stands: Portman has not been among the new conservatives who have swept across Capitol Hill this year. He has spoken of “finding common ground on a principled basis” and has shown interest in working with Democrats. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, he is keenly aware of what sequestration would mean for defense spending.

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: Yes

Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania

Who he is: Toomey, first elected to the Senate in 2010, is the former president of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax and pro-business group known for bankrolling primary challengers to Republicans. At 49, he is the youngest member of the panel and perhaps the closest in outlook to the Tea Party enthusiasts who have driven the fiscal debate since November 2010.

What he brings to the table: Toomey will not be at the table to compromise, at least in the early going. His style is to insist on principle, which in his case means drastic reductions in programs and no new taxes of any kind. But if he can be brought onboard for an eventual deal, he will bring great credibility among the hard-liners in his party. Should Toomey be induced to support a deal, that deal would get a second look from every senator and representative who voted against the August debt ceiling.

Where he stands: Toomey arrived in the Senate and joined a group of nine senators threatening to block all legislation that was not about reducing the federal debt. He has also co-written a bill to cap federal spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product and require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: No

House Republicans

Jeb Hensarling, Texas (co-chairman)

Who he is: Hensarling, a representative since 2003, is the No. 4 Republican in the House as the chairman of the House Republican Conference. While this post would normally mean years of waiting to ascend, the unsettled nature of House politics may soon create an opening for someone like this Texan with strong ties to the Tea Party movement. Hensarling’s “street cred” with the movement begin with his work for mentor Phil Gramm, the Republican senator whose Gramm-Rudman-Hollings spending cuts were the across-the-board sequestration of the 1980s.

What he brings to the table: Hensarling is the representative of the GOP leadership and will presumably speak for what the leadership wants. On the other hand, the unity of the leadership is not certain, given the way Majority Leader Eric Cantor undercut Speaker John Boehner and spiked chances of the “grand bargain” in the debt-ceiling debate. Hensarling served on the Bowles-Simpson Commission in 2010 but would not endorse sending its recommendations (a blend of revenues and spending cuts worth $4 trillion in deficit reduction) to the full Congress for a vote.

Where he stands: Hensarling, 54, is the most dedicated anti-tax hard-liner on the House side of the committee, and he often speaks for the party on its demand for the “cut, cap and balance” approach that the House passed and the Senate rejected. His vote for any product of the new committee would be a tremendous help in winning support from House Republicans, but waiting to win Hensarling’s vote might make a compromise elusive.

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: Yes

Dave Camp, Michigan

Who he is: A representative since 1991, Camp is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxes and trade and also entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Ways and Means has historically been the key committee of the House, although in recent years Appropriations and even the Budget Committee have grown in visibility. Camp is less colorful or aggressive than some past chairmen, such as Dan Rostenkowski, Bill Thomas or Charles Rangel, but his mastery of detail in the tax code may be unrivaled.

What he brings to the table: As a veteran of the Hill wars, dating back before the era of Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Camp has a sense of how Washington has changed — and not changed — and how difficult it is to alter the trajectory of the federal government. He also has institutional memory of more successful moments of collaboration, such as the welfare revisions of 1996. His district is a sprawling collection of small cities and vast rural areas in central and northern Michigan, a heartland stronghold of traditional conservatism.

Where he stands: Known as a conservative but not as a Tea Party populist, Camp has been working with Baucus on concepts for improving the tax code so as to spur growth and job creation. Some of these concepts may be useful for raising revenue if the committee has the political will to employ them. This is a big if. Camp was one of the Republicans on the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission and wound up opposing the report because it included tax increases.

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: Yes

Fred Upton, Michigan

Who he is: A representative since 1987, Upton is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Upton is actually the longer-serving of the “Michigan Twins,” 58-year-olds from largely rural districts who took over two of the key committees in January. He and Camp both have ties to the Michigan politics of the Reagan era (Upton worked for former Michigan Rep. David Stockman at the Office of Management and Budget before running for Congress himself in the district Stockman had held).

What he brings to the table: Upton will be the senior House member on the committee in either party and has a kind of career investment in seeing this effort succeed in reducing the long-term deficit. Like Camp, he is more of an old-school Republican than the typical Class of 2010 freshman, and he has decades of easy re-elections to make him feel more assured in his political judgments.

Where he stands: Upton was one of the key committee chairs whose support enabled Boehner to bring more than 70 percent of his House Republicans in on the debt-ceiling vote earlier this month. He wants to see the deficit reduced and the federal footprint reduced, but he will not readily accept more revenues unless those too come attached to Republican-flavored revisions to the tax code.

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: Yes

House Democrats

Xavier Becerra, California

Who he is: Becerra, who has served in the House since 1993, is vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus. That makes him part of the leadership, both as a conduit to Hispanic members and as a voice from California. Becerra is a Stanford Law grad who represents the only House district set entirely in the City of Los Angeles.

What he brings to the table: Representing a district predominantly composed of Hispanics and Asians, Becerra brings the perspective of these communities to the discussion. He also holds one of the safest Democratic seats in the nation, regularly winning re-election with more than 80 percent. If anyone on this committee can compromise and survive back home, it ought to be Becerra.

Where he stands: As befits his district and party role, Becerra fits the pattern of a strong government liberal, a supporter of President Obama’s program and a defender of the entitlement programs that date back to the 1930s and 1960s. He has supported a larger tax contribution from the affluent, opposing the extension of tax cuts on higher incomes that were enacted in 2001 and 2003 (“the Bush tax cuts”). For this reason, he voted against the debt ceiling deal, which had no such revenues and made many cuts in discretionary spending on domestic social programs.

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: No

Jim Clyburn, South Carolina

Who he is: Clyburn is the assistant Democratic leader, the House’s No. 3 Democrat. He has served in the House since 1993. When the Democrats held the majority in the 110th and 111th Congresses, Clyburn was the party whip. Clyburn has been a defender of the health care law enacted in 2010, especially as it affects seniors on Medicare.

What he brings to the table: Clyburn took part in deficit reduction talks with Vice President Biden and some Republicans earlier this summer. On this committee he will be the eyes and ears of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who appointed him and the other House Democrats. He will also bring the perspective of African-Americans (he is the highest-ranking black member of Congress) and of the Southern Democrats (he is the only Democrat in the South Carolina delegation). At 71, he will be the oldest member of the committee and so will also have something of a brief for the nation’s retired.

Where he stands: Clyburn has been a supporter of President Obama but also a sympathetic ear for the complaints of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, which have protested the president’s willingness to give in to Republican demands. He thought the debt-ceiling deal was objectionable but necessary, standing with the leaders who negotiated it and heeding the president’s call for passage.

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: Yes

Chris Van Hollen, Maryland

Who he is: Van Hollen, the ranking member on the Budget Committee, has served in the House since 2003. He was the House Democrats’ campaign committee chairman in 2008 and 2010, watching the Democratic share of the House soar past 250 seats and then plummet below 200. Van Hollen represents a largely affluent district outside Washington, D.C., that had long been Republican, but which is also home to many government workers and more recently to many immigrants.

What he brings to the table: Van Hollen is yet another Pelosi loyalist who found himself on the committee and he is likely to work in tandem with the others. Van Hollen is known as politically astute and media savvy. He has many government workers and pensioners in his constituency who see federal programs in personal terms.

Where he stands: Van Hollen would normally be seen as an automatic vote for higher revenues and more modest restraint of federal spending. But he is more likely to be the pragmatist than the firebrand, even on these core issues. Van Hollen knows better than most anyone just how the political winds have shifted in the past three years, making him another key contact point for a compromise and a “grand bargain.”

How he voted on the debt-ceiling bill: Yes [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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