Debt-cuts panel gets conflicting Hill input

Lawmakers lobby ‘supercommittee’

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The congressional “supercommittee” — the bipartisan group of 12 House and Senate members tasked with finding ways to slash the federal debt — has been flooded with often conflicting suggestions from colleagues eager to tell the panel how to do its job.

Beef up benefits for small businesses but raise taxes on the wealthy, Democrats say. Raise the eligibility age for Medicare recipients but no new taxes, Republicans respond. Lawmakers of both parties from agriculture-dependent states have offered some cuts to farm subsidies while carefully guarding others.

But as the supercommittee sifts though a stack of recommendations submitted in recent days by individual members of Congress and by congressional standing committees bent on protecting their turf, it’s uncertain to what extent — if at all — they will heed the advice.

“The supercommittee isn’t getting any help from them,” said Diane Lim Rogers, chief economist at the Concord Coalition, a centrist group that advocates for getting the federal budget in order. “The supercommittee has to take a leadership role on this issue and kind of cram it down the throats of the standing committees. That’s the only way any major policy changes are going to happen.”

While the recommendations have offered few surprises, they highlight the entrenched partisanship that has almost paralyzed Capitol Hill this year.

“There’s nothing that jumped out as a dramatic new idea or particularly surprising idea,” said Ed Lorenzen, a senior adviser with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group that advocates for fiscal responsibility. “The real process is going to be what communications are happening privately between the key people: the chairs and ranking members of the authorizing committees and the [super]committee.”

The deficit panel, born of this past summer’s bitter debt- and deficit-reduction battle, includes six members from both the House and Senate equally divided by party.

The group, formally called the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, must vote by Thanksgiving on a 10-year plan to cut the deficit by $1.5 trillion, on which the House and Senate would vote before Christmas. Failure to pass a package would trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that would affect a wide range of domestic programs, as well as the Pentagon.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, wants the supercommittee to recommend capping income tax rates for individuals and corporations at no higher than 25 percent, and a full repeal of the alternative minimum tax.

Mr. Hatch also proposed repealing the Democrat-crafted 2010 health care reform law — an established GOP mantra. The independent Congressional Budget Office, however, has said rescinding the law would increase federal deficits.

Rep. Barney Frank, the ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, conversely has insisted that tax increases must be included in the deficit panel’s plan. “Otherwise crucial programs within the jurisdiction of the Financial Services Committee and across the government will be at risk of devastating cuts,” he said.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee want to spend $16 billion on measures they say would create more than 560,000 jobs and save more than $150 billion during the coming decade.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, submitted 18 pages of cost-cutting ideas, focusing on administrative restructuring, reduction of duplicate and overlapping programs, and cutting unnecessary and wasteful programs under the jurisdiction of his panel. His plan, however, didn’t include a savings estimate.

In a bipartisan move, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees jointly have offered $23 billion in cuts to mandatory spending. But their offer includes no specifics and is about $10 billion less than what President Obama proposed.

Mrs. Lim Rogers said it’s no coincidence that most of the recommendations have come from the minority parties in each chamber, as the “the party in charge doesn’t want to sell things out right now.”

If the supercommittee incorporated all of the recommendations, “they would be left with nothing that would allow them to reach their goal,” she said.

“I think a lot of the committees that did write letters were using the opportunity for political purposes, not that they were actually trying to influence the supercommittee’s policy’s deliberation,” Mrs. Lim Rogers said.

Mr. Lorenzen added that without both major entitlement reform and increased tax revenue, the panel will be hard-pressed to reach its debt-slashing goal.

“It would be very hard for the committee to come up with even $1.2 trillion in savings by playing small ball with cats- and-dogs policies,” he said. “This is a reminder that getting serious debt reduction is going to require moving beyond those lines that have been drawn on a variety of issues.”

Unless party leaders on Capitol Hill and the White House are willing to compromise on big issues, the panel’s efforts likely will fall short.

“Select committee members can move the process forward substantially, but in order to get across the line it’s going to require engagement by leadership and administration,” Mr. Lorenzen said.

“In order for there to be an agreement, there needs to be a certain degree of give and take and building trust and trying to find the consensus for both parties from moving off of their formed positions in tandem.”

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