A federal debt commission backed by President Obama and a bipartisan group of Senate budget hawks faces a long-shot bid in a vote Tuesday amid concern that it would raise taxes and cut federal programs.
Advocates, including the top Democrat and top Republican on the Budget Committee, argue that Congress has been fiscally irresponsible as the nation’s debt hovers about $12 trillion and the annual deficit reached a record $1.4 trillion last year.
But opponents, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, argue that the commission’s structure could be “an indirect way to raise taxes.” Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, says the commission would “punt [Congress’] accountability away” and is an “easy way out.”
The commission would study how to reduce the federal debt and require lawmakers to cast politically difficult up-or-down votes on the group’s recommendations. The amendment is tacked on to a bill to increase the nation’s debt limit to $14.3 trillion but is expected to fail.
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In an attempt to keep the fiscal conservatives’ support for the debt increase, Senate Democrats and the White House are hammering out a backup plan that would establish the commission through an executive order and include an agreement from Democratic leaders to hold votes on the recommendations.
Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and chairman of the Budget Committee said he’ll only support the commission — and the debt increase — if it has teeth.
“I will only vote for a long-term extension of the debt if a credible commission is put in place, and by credible I mean one where the recommendations are bipartisan and they are assured of getting a vote in the House and Senate,” Mr. Conrad said Monday.
He and Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and ranking member of the committee, want a commission to have statutory requirements that the group’s recommendations face a vote — not just an agreement from Democratic leaders.
“If we can’t get 60 votes, I think this is the best opportunity we’ve ever had to do something substantive on the issue of the deficit and the debt and the solvency of the country,” Mr. Gregg said Monday. “I don’t see another opportunity like this coming along.”
Mr. Obama on Saturday said he “strongly” supports the plan, a move Mr. Gregg called, “a little late to the party.”
“His initial floating of the executive order undermined, I think, significantly, the momentum,” Mr. Gregg said.
The proposal would set up an 18-person commission, largely made up of lawmakers and administration officials, to make recommendations on how to bring the nation’s coffers back in line. Doing so would require politically difficult decisions on raising taxes and cutting spending, particularly on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
The state of the national economy and the federal debt have taken on increased attention from lawmakers on Capitol Hill after Sen.-elect Scott Brown’s surprise win in Massachusetts on Jan. 19.
“If people aren’t sobered by this situation, I don’t know what it would take to sober them,” Mr. Conrad said.
Congress has used commissions to make tough decisions in the past. They have established them to close outdated military bases, most recently in 2005, since no lawmaker wanted to vote to close one in their own district. In the same way, it’s tough to cut popular but expensive programs or raise taxes during bad economic times.
But critics of the commission system say they have little authority if Congress has the power to tinker with their recommendations instead of just voting for or against them.