Senators Toss Budget Ball to Obama Who Fumbles
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Kirk Victor
The Fiscal Times
March 29, 2011

There’s a well-worn aphorism in politics that getting U.S. senators to agree on anything is as easy as herding cats. In today’s bitterly partisan atmosphere, that maxim is especially apt. So when 64 senators signed a letter recently that urged President Obama to get involved on developing a “comprehensive” deficit reduction package, it appeared to be a big deal.

But even though Obama has expressed grave concern about the country’s ocean of red ink, he has refused to endorse the Senators’ letter, his fiscal commission’s recommendations for $4 trillion of deficit reduction in the coming decade, or embrace any other approach.

Skeptics are asking why such a large bipartisan group of senators — 32 from each party — doesn’t simply take the lead and write legislation, rather than await White House involvement. Indeed, such a move might force Obama’s hand.  

“It’s really nice that you can get 64 senators to agree that it is Monday,” Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said sarcastically. “But you’ve got 64 senators, which means you have a filibuster-proof group, all saying we have to do this. So do it!”

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., co-author of the Dodd- Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, was similarly dismissive. “They’re good at writing letters; why don’t they write a bill,” he said on “The Charlie Rose Show" on March 21.

“That’s a little unfair,” Stuart Eizenstat, who was President Carter’s top domestic policy adviser, responded in an interview. “Writing a letter is the first step; the second step is getting the administration to engage. If that happens, then you have something.”

“Does it require presidential leadership? Absolutely,” Eizenstat added. “The legislature, as independent as it is, still looks to the president on tough issues because it is a disparate body: the Senate, the House, Republicans, Democrats, different committee jurisdictions. So you have to have somebody who helps coalesce it.”

Although the critical mass of lawmakers seem determined to pass major budget legislation including deep cuts in spending and entitlements and increases in taxes, Senators Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mike Johanns, R-Neb., the leaders of the group, are waiting for a strong signal of support from Obama in order to “achieve consensus on these important fiscal issues.”

But as Congress returns from a week-long recess, the challenge of drafting a consensus measure seems more daunting. Neither Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., nor Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signed the letter. And Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who also didn’t sign the letter, are lining up against any effort to tamper with Social Security as part of a budget deal, saying that it would be too harmful to the elderly.

Johanns said during a recent conference call with reporters that it was “not unusual” for leaders, who must be honest brokers for their entire caucuses, not to endorse such initiatives. “Typically, at least in my case, I would not reach out to the leaders, minority or majority, and shop the letter to them,” he said. What’s far more important, he said, is to get the president to sign on to the effort.

The senators’ letter, dated March 15, makes the case for presidential action, stating: “Specifically, we hope that the discussion will include discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform.”

Their effort would build on the president’s fiscal commission blueprint that called for a politically-combustible brew that includes raising the retirement age for Social Security, eliminating “loopholes” from the tax code and imposing discretionary spending caps to force budget discipline. “While we may not agree with every aspect of the commission’s recommendations, we believe that its work represents an important foundation to achieve meaningful progress on our debt,” states the letter from the 64 senators. 

Obama, who gave only a half-hearted nod to the commission’s proposals in his State of the Union address, offered a similarly perfunctory endorsement of this latest move. White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said, “We believe it’s a positive development any time Democrats and Republicans come together to work on one of our nation’s toughest challenges, and we will continue to work with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to rein in our deficit, grow our economy and win the future.” 

Johanns was adamant that without Obama’s involvement, the effort would fizzle. “The ball is very clearly in the president's court to respond and join with us in this effort. We need his leadership,” he said.  “There is no question that tackling entitlement programs and tax reform is going to be tough …. But we won't have any chance unless the president joins with us in this good faith effort. “

Further complicating the process is the sharp disagreement among Democrats over whether Social Security reform should be included in proposals to rein in the debt. Reid insists it should not be. “One of the things that always troubles me is when we start talking about the debt, the first thing people do is run to Social Security,” Reid said earlier this year on NBC’S Meet the Press. “Social Security is a program that works. And it's going to be — it’s fully funded for the next forty years. Stop picking on Social Security.”

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who also did not sign the letter, agrees with Reid that Social Security does not contribute to the deficit. On the other hand, Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a member of the fiscal commission who also is in the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group working on a comprehensive proposal to deal with the debt, insists that everything must be on the table, including Social Security. Liberal-leaning Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, the Democratic Party whip, who also voted for the fiscal commission report, agrees.

At the same time, influential outside interest groups — on the right and left — oppose a comprehensive package that includes tax increases or entitlement reform. Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader and president of the Americans for Tax Reform, has faced off with Republican Senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Crapo of Idaho — members of the Gang of Six who are attempting to convert the fiscal commission’s proposals into legislation. They have disputed Norquist’s claim that they, too, vowed to oppose any revenue raisers in a comprehensive budget deal.

Meanwhile, on the left, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka recently told The Fiscal Times that he opposes any cuts to Medicare or Social Security. He added: “Right now we have a job crisis. The draconian cuts proposed by the Republican Party could really seriously jeopardize the nascent recovery that we see today …. Put 15 million people back to work, all of which will be paying into Social Security, and the deficit goes away and the problem with Social Security drifts down to nothing.”

So, despite all the attention given to the letter, the obstacles to progress remain formidable. In surveying the political landscape, Ornstein concluded the political will to take bold steps is simply not yet present. “Nobody wants to step out with what might be a controversial position.”

Related Links:
Senators Push Obama on Deficit (The Wall Street Journal)
More Than 60 Senators Call on Obama to Join Deficit Talks (The Fiscal Times)