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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    Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana is one of several senators working to make headway on reforming America's tax code during the summer session of Congress.
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When Congress returns from its July 4 break, the American people will actually be watching two institutions.

One set of votes and talking points will be about improving each party’s political fortunes come November.

The other, smaller, portion of the legislative branch’s time? That will be spent attempting the real heavy lifting Congress will have to do in the next year: dealing with $600 billion in federal spending cuts and tax increases slated to take place at year’s end.

Recommended: Could 'fiscal cliff' push US into recession? Four questions answered.

The House has teed up two of the most important votes for Congress in its political, election-year best. First, Republicans will vote to repeal President Obama’s health-care reform law on July 11, marking the 31st such vote to repeal or defund at least part of the legislation and marking the second time House Republicans will have struck down the measure in its entirety.

Of course, this vote is as guaranteed to pass the House as it is to die in the Democrat-held Senate. So why do it at all?

“Look, the choice is very clear,” said House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia when asked that question on "CBS This Morning" on Friday. “If you step back for a second, it's all about this election and whether this law is going to go forward or not.”

Next up is a vote to extend all of the Bush tax cuts, another election year wedge which has no chance of a showing in the Senate but will allow Republicans to maintain that they are the party of lower taxes. Mr. Obama favors extending the tax cuts only for those with incomes under $250,000 a year.

And then there’s a likely vote on a measure close to the heart of the party’s most conservative members: legislation requiring an audit of the Federal Reserve.

Taken together, these votes have an aggregate chance of coming into law of somewhere around 0 percent before the next Congress is sworn in.

And then there’s the other Congress – the one that is trying to head off what economic experts call the fiscal cliff and which media pundits have dubbed “taxmaggedon.”

A group of roughly a half dozen senators committed to the bipartisan deficit-reduction plan created by Obama’s debt commission is quietly discussing how to pass that proposal into law. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D) of Montana said recently that Finance Committee members would be meeting behind closed doors to begin building a consensus around reforming the American tax code in 2013.  

But not everything is being done largely out of the public eye.

While much of Washington was recovering from a momentous Supreme Court ruling on health-care reform, longside a dramatic (and also historic) vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, a trio of Republican senators took to the floor on Friday to throw down the gauntlet to leaders on both sides of the aisle over the looming budget sequester.

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.

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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