- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2011

The defining element of Sunday night’s debt-limit deal is not what happens now, but what it sets up for the next five months: an all-out war between tax increasers and entitlement cutters, fought on the battlefield of a 12-member congressional “supercommittee.”

With both wings of the political spectrum opposed, President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner had to ditch talks that would have meant tackling taxes or entitlements in the short term. But the agreement they reached Sunday wrote the rules to ensure it happens now, in that committee.

“The question is, after we get this done, is there need for comprehensive deficit reduction? And the answer is not only yes, but hell yes,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who was the first to suggest the committee as a way to help bridge the debt divide between the two parties.

The committee would be charged with lowering deficits by at least $1.5 trillion over the next decade and could look at any solutions, including tax increases, discretionary spending cuts and entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

The key to the committee is the consequences that would kick in if the lawmakers can’t agree: Massive spending cuts, half of them on defense programs, would be phased in.

“Both sides have high stakes in the success of that bipartisan committee, or else,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat.

The committee’s report is due by Thanksgiving, and Congress would have to act on it by Christmas.

Those on both ends of the political spectrum remained adamantly opposed, fearing the commission might get done what Congress as a whole has been unable to do: increase taxes or tackle growing entitlement spending.

“We are looking to up to $1.4 trillion in cuts, and virtually every program, every program that working families depend upon, that our children depend upon, that the sick depend upon, are on the line,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent.

Meanwhile, conservative groups said the chance that the committee will look to tax increases is more than they can stomach.

However, Republican lawmakers wrote the committee process so that it “virtually guarantees that tax rates will not go up,” said Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

The White House disputed that, saying the committee can easily eliminate tax loopholes and could still raise income tax rates if the members choose.

One key question is which side will have more incentive to scuttle a committee report and let the draconian backup cuts go into effect. The deal protects Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries from cuts but could target defense, basic domestic spending and doctors who take Medicare patients.

“No deal will be more attractive to the liberals than what’s already in the triggers — deep, deep defense cuts with no real Medicare reform to make that program sustainable,” said Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican.

The 12 committee members need to be named within two weeks and will be equally divided between the House and Senate and between Democrats and Republicans. Mr. Reid, House Speaker John A. Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell each would get three selections.

Republican aides signaled last week, when the committee idea was first being mooted, that they would make sure not to include any tax-increase proponents.

But Mr. Reid on Monday said he might go a different way and name Senate Democrats who are open to dealing on all sides.

“One of my friends asked me, says he’d like to be on the committee, but I think it doesn’t bode well for me to chose someone the world knows how they feel about it before they go into it,” Mr. Reid said. “It’s extremely important that I pick people who are willing to make hard choices but are not locked in.”

Not everyone thought the committee was set up to succeed. For example, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, told MSNBC it was “doubtful” the committee would be able to work “in a positive fashion.”

While those inside the Capitol said having only members of Congress sit on the committee is good because it means accountable lawmakers are in control, history also suggests those people are the most politically risk-averse.

The president’s recent deficit commission failed to report back a deal mainly because the members of Congress were unable to get on board. Five of the six outside members signed onto the final deal, but just half of the dozen lawmakers on the committee did — leaving them shy of the 14-vote supermajority needed to make an official recommendation.

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