Senate nixes panel on deficit and debt

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A rare bipartisan coalition in the Senate blocked a proposal backed by President Obama to create a powerful commission to reduce the federal debt, fearing it would raise taxes and cut programs.

The commission’s proponents wanted the group to make recommendations on where to make cuts to reduce the debt and deficit. Congress would have to take politically difficult up-or-down votes on the results.

“I think a commission may well be a good idea, but I think we need to focus on spending,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who voted against the plan. “Now that we’ve been on this [spending] binge for a whole year and … we’ve got to target — focus like a laser on the spending problem.”

Democrats who opposed the amendment, meanwhile, were worried it would unfairly cut federal programs.

The amendment fell 53 to 46, short of the 60 that were required. A coalition of 23 Republicans, 22 Democrats and one independent knocked down the effort.

White House officials and Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and Budget Committee chairman, who proposed the original plan, are working on a backup plan that would establish a similar commission through executive order. It would not have the same statutory authority to require a vote on the commission’s recommendations, a sticking point with budget hawks on Capitol Hill, such as Mr. Conrad.

“I continue to hope that we will find a way to get a statutory commission,” Mr. Conrad said after the vote on Tuesday. “But time is running out. Let’s be very clear: Time is running out. And so we’ve got to search for alternatives that are credible.”

The budget committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, co-sponsored the amendment, but opposes creating the commission through executive order.

“I still feel an executive order is a car without an engine,” he told The Washington Times after the vote.

He said the only way a commission would be successful is if it’s bipartisan and its recommendations would be required to be voted upon by Congress.

“An executive order would be subject to the vagaries of any senator who wants to put a roadblock in the way,” Mr. Gregg said. “You can’t guarantee a vote here” through a promise from leaders in each chamber, as some have suggested as an alternative to establishing the commission through law.

The amendment was tied to a pending proposal to increase the nation’s debt limit to $14.3 trillion. Mr. Conrad said he won’t support the debt-limit increase until a credible commission is put in place. Mr. Gregg said he will oppose the debt-limit increase, calling it “irresponsible” to do so without a statutory commission.

The debt is currently hovering above $12 trillion and the annual deficit reached a record $1.4 trillion last year.

Lawmakers are expected to vote later this week on another amendment that would impose caps on defense and nondefense discretionary spending. Sponsored by Sens. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, and Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, it would cap budget increases for five years at an average of 1.5 percent for discretionary spending and 1.14 percent for nondefense discretionary spending.

Mrs. McCaskill said Tuesday that she thinks they have the votes to pass the amendment.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, tried to stop the increase to the debt limit with a rarely used procedural tool that could stall the process.

He broke his pending amendment into seventeen pieces, a procedure called a “clay pigeon.” It could require a vote on each piece of the amendment, potentially stalling a final vote on the debt-limit increase.

“What these amendments are designed to do is to get us doing what every American family is doing today — and that’s start to make some of the hard choices about where we have excess, where we have inefficiency, where we have duplication, and eliminate it,” Mr. Coburn said on the Senate floor.

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