The 12 congressional lawmakers appointed last week to the new, high-stakes deficit reduction panel will convene next month amid super-partisan pressures that have blocked past efforts at bipartisan compromise on debt reduction. Skepticism that they will reach a mutually acceptable agreement is running high.
But in their early public comments since receiving the assignment, several of the lawmakers appointed to the panel have sounded unexpectedly eager to find common ground — and to avoid taking the kind of rigid stands that would be difficult to rescind once negotiations begin.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), a freshman favorite of the tea party, told reporters last week that while he is not interested in a “big tax increase,” he thinks that there are areas where the tax code could be made more “sensible.” He pointed to his recent vote to eliminate subsidies for ethanol producers — which some conservatives saw as a tax increase — as a sign that he is ready to compromise.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) pledged to “be as open as possible, check my ego and my preconditions at the door and let the work of the committee drive us to a conclusion.”
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who chairs the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, told Reuters last week that nothing should be off-limits for committee consideration. It is far from clear that this apparent spirit of conciliation can translate into actual agreement.
Public Disgust with Gridlock: All-Time High
The six Democrats and six Republicans charged by their party leadership with cutting the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years meet as polls indicate that disgust with congressional gridlock is at an all-time high.
Americans’ faith in the government’s ability to solve the nation’s economic problems has also sunk to alarming lows, even as a gyrating stock market and a national credit downgrade have made the magnitude of the country’s fiscal woes more apparent.
Committee members might be eager to have their deliberations at least appear less rancorous than the negotiations over raising the debt ceiling that resulted in the panel’s creation. But the tone of comments also suggests that after that hard-fought battle there might be a brief moment of opportunity to do what has eluded other bipartisan panels and special fiscal commissions.
“There’s a potential for a bipartisan deal here. There has been for a while,” said Alice Rivlin, a former White House budget director who chaired the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force. “The new element is the revulsion of the country and the world at the spectacle that we have just lived through.”
For the so-called “supercommittee,” the stakes are high. Not only is there pressure to help stabilize the nation’s finances, but pressure also to help restore Congress’s reputation as an institution that can function effectively.
“I’m not making any predictions here,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a supercommittee member, “but the ingredients could produce a good outcome.”
Core Differences: Can They Be Bridged?
Skepticism about the panel’s prospects for success stems from the failures of the past year. A series of negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House did not bridge core differences between Republicans and Democrats or produce the budget “grand bargain” the president and House Speaker John A. Boehner were working toward.
Republicans are demanding that the supercommittee make changes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, a tough concession for Democrats. Many Democrats, including President Obama, say spending cuts must be paired with higher taxes on the wealthy, which are considered “job-killing” and off-limits by many Republicans.
Others potential obstacles are the belief by some that the congressional fo