From this morning’s Politico:
|Political leaders, across the board, keep pressuring the deficit-cutting supercommittee to “go big” and aim for trillions in deficit reduction, but they keep saying “no” to anything that would actually accomplish that goal.
Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other Republican leaders have vowed to reject a penny of tax increases. President Barack Obama says Medicare benefits are untouchable if Republicans won’t raise taxes on the rich. Defense hawks — including Democrats like Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — are concerned about Pentagon spending levels.
What could be left on the table for actual cuts is nondefense discretionary programs — only about 18 percent of federal spending — that already were raided by the government shutdown debate of the spring and the debt-limit deal in August. It sets up an almost impossible task — wring the bulk of $1.4 trillion in savings out of small slivers of the federal budget — while avoiding once again the hard decisions that address how the United States got into this debt crisis in the first place.
“I have, as you’ve heard me say over and over again, said everything needs to be on the table,” said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “I think no one should, if they want to be responsible, should preclude any item from being on the table.”
“Taking things off the table is not helpful,” Hoyer added. “Do I think we can get to where we need to be over the next three months and take things off the table? No.”
As the committee headed into its first serious negotiating session Tuesday — behind closed doors, with minimal staff — there were continued signs that they are being hemmed in.
Democrats already are laying down a marker — they want to negotiate on revenues first, then move on to spending cuts. Indeed, Democrats still feel burned by the talks with Vice President Joe Biden, where Republicans abandoned discussions on revenues as soon as they found the cuts they wanted. This time around, Democrats are insisting that the group talk revenues first.
Republicans want the basis of the discussion to be cut-heavy framework developed by the Biden Group, which includes no new tax revenue. Democrats continue to insist on a deficit-cutting strategy that relies on tax increases and spending cuts — they favor building on the bipartisan approach authored by Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, or Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Pete Domenici. They all acknowledge that they don’t have much time to figure it out.
On top of that, the notion of serious, long-term tax reform is also sputtering, senior aides and lawmakers say. The supercommittee simply doesn’t have time to stitch up the Tax Code in the 63 days it has to report a plan to find at least $1.2 trillion in savings — and experts have told members and aides that. And Obama’s plan to hike taxes on the rich illustrates that the two parties are too far apart right now to find any agreement — or perhaps even a framework — on a larger tax compromise. The committee, though, is proceeding with a hearing Thursday on tax reform, which will feature Thomas Barthold, the chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, as the lone witness.
But there’s really even no agreement on a potential path forward for tax reform. Boehner wants the committee to draw up a plan to rework the Tax Code, which could be addressed sometime after the committee issues its legislation in November. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the panel, said in an interview with POLITICO this week that he doesn’t “think the committee should kick these issues down the road,” referring to tax reform.
“I think the committee should grapple with them right now,” Van Hollen said.
So is the committee only going to reach once again into nondefense discretionary programs? Some see it that way; other aides and lawmakers — including Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — point out that nonhealth mandatory programs and waste, fraud and abuse in health care spending could hold significant savings. In a sign of healthy skepticism, some top aides in both parties say a more likely scenario will have the joint committee find some savings to avoid the full trigger being enacted.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a member of the joint committee, said it was impossible to tell what was in the mix before the first real negotiating session, which was held Tuesday in a meeting room in the Library of Congress.
“I don’t know where they’re going to draw the lines,” Kyl said. “Hope springs eternal. You all know the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? The pessimist says, ‘Things are so bad they can’t get any worse.’ And the optimist says, ‘Sure they can.’”
Members said precious little on their way out, instead allowing the committee heads, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), to speak on their behalf. Murray said the group had a “great discussion,” and Hensarling added that “every day that the committee meets,” they make progress.
All of the jockeying provides the backdrop for the supercommittee gathered for their first substantive meeting. They held the meeting in the Members of Congress room in the Jefferson Building — part of the Library of Congress cluster — surrounded by opulent, detailed ceilings and protected by a police officer. Only members of the committee were allowed in the meeting — most staff were not allowed in. Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee huddled earlier in the day and week — both informally and formally — in advance of the Tuesday meeting.
Members said little as they entered the room — Kyl and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) walked in together.
In addition to the chatter on the committee, there seems to be a sliver of daylight between House GOP leaders. While Boehner has said he’s in favor of the big deal — a “grand bargain” redux that could find as much as $4 trillion in savings, without overall tax increases — Cantor laid out exactly where he was Tuesday, and it’s not precisely where Boehner is.
“My hope is that they can reach the goal of accomplishing the $1.4 trillion in cuts that was mandated in the debt ceiling agreement,” Cantor said Tuesday, advocating for the smaller-bore approach. He added that he hopes the cut-heavy plan he worked on with Biden provides the outlines for an agreement on the 12-person panel.
Democratic and Republican staff close to the panel say they have seen their jobs get more difficult in recent days. First, Boehner waded into the discussion, drawing a deep line on revenue. Then, Obama’s speech tied entitlement alterations to tax hikes, boxing members in further. They aren’t sure where that leaves them. And there are only a few months left.
Manu Raju contributed to this report.