In a rare flicker of bipartisanship, at least 100 House members, half Democrats and half Republicans, are going public next week with a letter urging Congress’s deficit “super committee” to aim for a big, grand bargain – taking nothing off the table.
The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction has until Nov. 23 to produce a plan to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Amid concerns that the panel may be sliding into gridlock, this bipartisan fiscal group aims to show that there is a critical mass of House members willing to take political risks to support a significant deficit-reduction plan.
The intervention of a strong, bipartisan group in the House could persuade House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio to back the bill – support that would be crucial to its passage. Moreover, the letter could be timely.
Until recently, the 12-member deficit panel has maintained a tight embargo on leaks – typically a sign that closed-door negotiations are serious and trust is prevailing. But this week, bargaining positions began leaking, along with reports of tough, partisan pushback.
On Tuesday, aides apparently leaked a report that Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, had proposed $3 trillion in deficit reduction, including at least $1 trillion in tax hikes – a nonstarter for Republicans. Republicans reportedly responded with calls for more of the burden of debt reduction to come from entitlement cuts, a nonstarter for Democrats.
The letter could reestablish the fraying sense of trust.
“We want to make the committee believe that there are people on both sides of the aisle supportive of their efforts and to show the American people that, though there are some difficulties, the Congress is not completely broken,” says nine-term Rep. Steve LaTourette (R) of Ohio.
Such bipartisan groups, a.k.a. “gangs,” are common in the Senate, especially at times of institutional crisis, but have been rare in the House, where House rules and party leaders hold stronger sway.
Led by Reps. Mike Simpson (R) of Idaho and Health Shuler (D) of North Carolina, lawmakers began meeting informally in the runup to the summer’s debt-limit crisis to seek common ground on fiscal issues. When the joint deficit committee was created to help break the impasse, the group switched gears to help support that effort.
After weeks of private discussions, the group settled on a plan to reach out to colleagues to build support for a big deal along the lines that President Obama and Speaker Boehner discussed and appeared close to agreeing to until talks collapsed in July.
“The language was negotiated. The Democrats went on their way and we went on ours in an attempt to convince members of our party to sign,” says Congressman LaTourette.
The window to sign the new House letter shuts on Nov. 1, and the letter is to be released the following day.
Speaker Boehner has not yet taken a position on the letter. But GOP leaders in this group are close to the Speaker and consulted with him on whether this approach would "undermine any effort" of his.
"He said no," says LaTourette. "While he didn't endorse it, he said it would be helpful."
At a press briefing on Thursday, Boehner said: “When I see news reports of some of what was put in the table, Democrats are calling for $1.3 trillion worth of tax increases. This is the same number that was in the president’s  budget,” which failed to win a single vote in the Senate. “It’s not a reasonable number.”
Pressed on whether Republicans would cave on their pledge to not increase taxes, Boehner said: “I expect it’s going to be very difficult to get to an outcome, but I am committed to getting to an outcome.”
“It’s about time for us to see this super committee narrow its possibilities and reach agreement,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, in a briefing on Thursday. She called for a result that is “big, and bold, and balanced,” which means that tax hikes should be part of the package.
“We have told our members there are no sacred cows at the table,” she added. “We want results.”
Freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling (R) of Illinois has seen the bipartisan letter but has not signed it. He says he is wary of the concept of “everything on the table,” because he says it might include tax hikes for small business.
“So far, this administration can’t come up with a solution other than regulating and taxing business out of America,” he says.
But he’s also concerned about reports that a failure to make robust cuts could lead to another downgrade of US debt. “Some folks are talking about that we’re going to get another downgrade, we have to take a look at some options here,” he says. “The American people are sick and tired of what’s going on here.
Freshman Rep. Mike Kelly (R) of Pennsylvania, who did sign the letter, says that he favors increasing tax revenue, but not rates. “I don’t mind looking at the tax code,” he says. “It picks winners and losers. It’s supposed to be a level playing field.”
After a lifetime in the car business, Congressman Kelly says he’s not worried about criticism from his own party ranks that could cost him reelection. “You can get too caught up in just getting back here,” he says.
But she’s still considering it. “Anything bipartisan is going to give the [deficit] committee strength and backbone.”