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Congress's dirty secret: behind scenes, it's working to fix problems

Much of what Congress does this summer will be pure political posturing. But behind the scenes, small groups of lawmakers are trying to chip away at the biggest fiscal issues.  

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The sequester, $109 billion in spending reductions set to hit Jan. 3 – and at least another $1.1 trillion over the next decade – are the legacy of last summer’s debt-ceiling deal. When a “supercommittee” of legislators from both houses couldn’t figure out an acceptable mix of deficit reduction, the sequester – slashing both defense and discretionary spending – put automatic cuts into play each year for the next decade.

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The group – Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, a chief surrogate and potential vice presidential pick for GOP presidential nominee MItt Romney – had one message: Congress needs to hold off the $55 billion cuts to defense spending coming in January.

And it has to begin working to prevent those cuts now by putting members to work to find offsets to the automatic defense cuts.

“To our Republican and Democratic leader, why don't you convene a group of senators and to our leaders in the House, why don't you get a group of House members and ask us to come up with a plan to do at least one thing – avoid the consequence of sequestration for one year in 2013 to take the monkey off [American troops’] back,” said Senator Graham.

He continued: “To the leaders, if you think the rest of us are going to sit on the sidelines and let this matter be taken up in lame duck [session of Congress] when it becomes a nightmare for the country, you can forget it.”

Senator McCain, who noted that “all I can see so far is a total gridlock on this issue,” said he would take up the negotiations personally to move the sequester debate forward.  

Sequester concern is one of the few bipartisan points of accord in Congress today. Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the Senate majority whip, later said he agreed with the group on the principle of fixing the sequester, arguing that discretionary cuts should be offset, as well.

The problem, of course, is that Congress has never wanted for committees and commissions and study groups. The problem is that Congress has been unable to muster the political will to deal with the towering pile of financial issues on a long-term basis.

“The cliff was really created by Congress,” along with Obama, says John Taylor, an economist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. “When they voted for temporary reduction in the payroll tax – temporary means it ends. And when they voted to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years, that means it ends. And all these things just didn’t happen miraculously. It’s not mother nature creating this cliff, it’s not just erosion from some river that created this cliff, this is created by people.”

Graham, at least in broad principle, appeared to agree on Friday. “This is a body known for doing some pretty dumb things,” he said.

But allowing the sequester to go into effect untouched? “This would be the prize.”

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