Nine days left: Has the debt 'super committee' found the bipartisan middle?

The deficit-reduction 'super committee' has nine days to get the nation’s fiscal house in order. The closed-door sessions have produced a surprise – the revival of a nearly defunct bipartisan center.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, details a deficit reduction plan before the US Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. The bipartisan congressional 'super committee' has nine days to break an impasse between Republicans and Democrats to reach a deal to reduce the US budget deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.

With nine days left for Congress to strike a deal to get the nation’s fiscal house in order, success or failure for the 12-member “super committee” are both still plausible outcomes. Congress set a self-imposed deadline of Nov. 23 to come up with a deal.

The panel needs seven votes on a deal to force at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years. Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania last week broke with his party’s anti-tax pledge to propose some $300 billion in new tax revenues. Democrats are said to be on the verge of a counterproposal, as early as today, to include new cuts in entitlement spending likely to offend their party’s base.

But succeed or fail, Congress’s experiment in high-stakes, closed-door deficit-reduction has already produced a surprise – the revival of a nearly defunct bipartisan center, operating outside the strict party lines that have defined congressional politics for the last 20 years. 

Over weeks of discussion, some 45 senators and 102 House members – Republicans and Democrats – broke party lines to back calls for the super committee to “go big” and to put all elements on the table: tax hikes and entitlement cuts, as well as spending cuts.  

Breaking party lines is rare on Capitol Hill. For Senators and House members to work together is rarer still. At a rally in the Capitol Tuesday, these lawmakers aim to signal bipartisan, bicameral support for a big deal that takes political risks.

The center, once a force on Capitol Hill, has been decimated by recent election cycles, especially in the House. Moderate Republicans all but disappeared, and fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats saw their ranks cut in half in the 2008 elections. But fears that the Congress is no longer capable of getting its fiscal house in order have driven lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – and in both the House and Senate – to try to break the gridlock by working across the aisle.

“The whole push to go big has been surprisingly contagious,” says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Members have pushed themselves out of their comfort zones, and I feel like a deal is completely within reach.”

On the Senate side, the effort to build consensus across party lines was lead by Sens. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia and Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia, veterans of the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan Senate effort to get Congress to act on deficit reduction. Over time, they convinced nearly half the Senate to continue and expand those discussions in a bid to encourage the super committee to aim for a bigger package of deficit reduction than mandated by law.

Last Thursday, dozens of senators rotated in and out of a strategy session to find ways to encourage the super committee to “go big.” One conclusion of that meeting: work with the 100-plus House members to make a significant statement on the need for a big, bipartisan deal.

Not all members associating themselves with this bipartisan drive are moderates. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, a longtime conservative, stunned Democrats on Monday when he released a report exposing billions in tax giveaways to millionaires – a Democratic talking point.

“From tax write-offs for gambling losses, vacation homes, and luxury yachts to subsidies for their ranches and estates, the government is subsidizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous,” Senator Coburn said in a statement. “Multi-millionaires are even receiving government checks for not working.

On the House side, the effort is led by Reps. Mike Simpson (R) of Idaho and Heath Shuler (D) of North Carolina. On Nov. 2, they released a letter signed by 60 Democrats and 40 Republicans urging the joint committee to aim for $4 trillion in deficit reduction, including tax hikes and cuts to entitlements.

“I am so proud of all of my colleagues who signed this letter for their courage to put country before political parties and do what is right for the fiscal future of our nation,” said Congressman Shuler in a statement.

Breaking partisan lines on taxes is especially tough on Republicans.

All but six House Republicans have signed a pledge by the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) that commits them to opposing all tax increases, including cuts to tax breaks that are not entirely offset by rate cuts elsewhere. The Toomey plan violates the letter of that pledge. So does the call by 40 House Republicans for the super committee to consider taxes as part of a “go big” deficit-reduction plan.

“Borrowing money is a tax on future generations,” says Rep. Steve LaTourette (R) of Ohio, who says he no longer considers himself bound by a pledge he signed in 1994. “We’re on a path to owe more than $20 trillion.”

The anti-tax pledge has been a litmus test for Republicans candidates since 1986, especially in primary elections. GOP leaders, for the most part, have avoided commenting on the new rift in their ranks on raising taxes to curb deficits.

Asked about members who no longer want to be bound by the ATR pledge, House majority leader Eric Cantor told reporters on Monday: “It is not about [ATR president] Grover Norquist. It is about commitments that people make to the electorate that they represent, to the people that sent them here. That is what it is about. So again, your words should be good to your constituents and that is what we are dealing with here.”

In an opinion essay in USA Today posted on Sunday, Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, a caucus for House conservatives, opposed any move to include tax hikes in a deficit deal. 

“Balance doesn't mean ‘half-right, half-wrong,’ " he wrote. “It means you don't fall over. Our economy will have an even tougher time catching its balance if Washington raises taxes.”

Meanwhile, Democrats are also grappling with the prospect of a tough vote to cut entitlement spending. Protecting entitlements has been a core campaign theme for Democrats in recent campaign cycles, and leaders had been gearing up to make it a defining point in the 2012 campaign.

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