Real work on debt limit still to come
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.
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.
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