- Associated Press - Thursday, August 4, 2011

The special panel’s goal is lofty: concoct a deal both parties will embrace to slash federal deficits by a mammoth $1.5 trillion or more over the next decade.

Yet from the moment House and Senate leaders appoint the committee’s 12 members until the 2012 elections, hurricane-force political pressures are going to make it tough to produce anything substantial.

All sides will fiercely defend core priorities, Republicans opposing tax increases and defense cuts and Democrats protecting benefits for Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid recipients. Those happen to be exactly where nonpartisan analysts say savings must occur for any serious deficit-cutting package to emerge.

The decisions — at least the next big ones — rest with the committee set up by the agreement that defused the debt-limit crisis this week.

Every choice will have implications for President Obama’s re-election, for Republican hopefuls jockeying to unseat him and for Democrats and Republicans struggling for control of the House and Senate.

If the special committee of lawmakers fails to produce a savings plan by Thanksgiving or if Congress rejects it by Christmas, this week’s compromise debt-limit accord between Mr. Obama and Congress will automatically trigger cuts of $1.2 trillion from much of the budget, with half from the military.

That would mean “dangerous across-the-board defense cuts that would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families and our ability to protect the nation,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared Wednesday.

Within two weeks, Democratic and GOP leaders of the House and Senate will each name three lawmakers to form the new 12-member committee.

The special committee will need approval by just seven members to send a package to Congress for a vote with no changes allowed. No leader can afford to appoint a wild card who might stray.

The leaders have incentive to name loyalists who follow party orthodoxy: self-preservation. None wants to lose seats in the next election or risk a rebellion by rank-and-file lawmakers that might cost them their leadership posts because a committee agreement abandons party priorities.

“People’s political survivability might be at stake here, both for members and control of each chamber,” said Robert Reischauer, president of the nonpartisan Urban Institute.

Appointees will probably have budget expertise. It could be risky to name legislators who were members of the Simpson-Bowles commission or the Senate’s “Gang of Six,” bipartisan groups that proposed budget plans that included higher taxes and benefit cuts, because they might embrace a compromise that party leaders oppose.

No one contests that it will be hard to produce a package that is due a month before the start of a presidential and congressional election year and just two months before Iowa caucus voters have a say on the Republican presidential nominee.

Pushing the committee to produce an agreement are the $1.2 trillion in automatic budget cuts that will be triggered if the panel deadlocks or Congress rejects its work. Mr. Obama and congressional leaders made the automatic cuts truly unappealing to both parties, with half of the $1.2 trillion hitting the military anathema to Republicans and the other half slamming domestic programs popular with Democrats.

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