There’s a new bipartisan committee to save the government’s finances … and optimism of a deal abounds despite the past failures of similar panels in 2010 and 2011.
As part of the Wednesday agreement to reopen the government and stave off default through early next year, Congress put together a bipartisan conference committee to reconcile the differences between the House Republican and Senate Democrats’ budget plans.
The Fiscal Times breaks down the personalities of the 29 committee members, who will decide whether these talks are a triumph or another bust starting with its two chiefs: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his Senate counterpart Patty Murray (D-WI).
Rep. Paul Ryan – The Wisconsin congressman zoomed to prominence in the GOP for being a “numbers guy,” becoming the party’s vice presidential nominee last year.
But he has yet to craft actual policy, as his past three budget plans were largely viewed as ideological statements that only cleared the House. He voted against the deficit deal from the 2010 Simpson-Bowles Commission.
It’s unclear how Ryan can swing a budget agreement with the Democratic Senate, as he has held firm against the tax hikes supported by the upper chamber while calling for entitlement reform.
The House plan balances the budget in 10 years primarily by eliminating all Obamacare spending but keeping Obamacare Medicare cuts. This week’s deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling made it clear that the president’s signature health reform bill is here to stay. Ryan voted against the agreement and the committee that it formed. He said he is “committed” to making the new committee a “success,” but was highly critical of the legislation mandating it.
“In my judgment, this isn’t a breakthrough,” he said. “We’re just kicking the can down the road.”
Sen. Patty Murray –The Senate Budget Committee chairwoman tried to coax and cajole House Republicans into forming a conference committee since last spring.
Murray knows that the chamber passed a budget with almost $1 trillion in tax hikes over the next decade, but it didn't balance the budget during that same period of time. This provoked sharp GOP criticism.
When she took over the budget committee, the Senate had not passed a budget in years, a problem she fixed with support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Murray recognized that the failure to negotiate with the House could lead to crisis.
“My biggest concern is that we’re being dragged by the Republicans into a nightmare scenario this fall, between our two budget allocations and the Republicans’ insistence that the debt ceiling be tied to this,” Murray prophetically told The Fiscal Times in June.
She now has until Dec. 13 to force through some kind of larger budget agreement. It’s either an opportunity to succeed where her predecessors have failed or the chance to become the latest lawmaker blamed as hapless to fix the polarization on Capitol Hill.
"We believe that there is common ground in showing the American people that as Congress we can work and make sure our economy is growing and that people are back to work and that we can do the job we were sent here to do,” Murray said of this assignment.
The Sages – These are the lawmakers with a shrewd sense of politics and deep knowledge of policy, the ones capable of scrutinizing a deal for economic, ideological and electoral advantages (and pitfalls).
No Democrat has dissected GOP budget plans as effectively as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who early on exposed the spending cuts as unrealistic, an analysis that foreshadowed the Republicans’ struggles to pass spending measures this year.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) correctly called the fiscal cliff fight last year a losing battle for the GOP and remains close to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). In assessing the political impact of the shutdown, Cole suggested it might pave the way for a compromise. “Sometimes a good fight clears the air a little bit,” he told CNN.
Almost no one on Capitol Hill understands the budget as intricately as Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who served as the budget director for President George W. Bush from 2006 to 2007. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) once worked on a Medicare reform proposal with Rep. Ryan, although he opposed what the Wisconsin congressman eventually included in his budget.
The Dealmakers – If the Senate forms a bipartisan “gang” on a bill, odds are that Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) helped organize it. Along with Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, Warner represents a swing state and is determined—according to an interview with Bloomberg News—to not “repeat this nightmare.” Another ‘swing stater’ with an incentive to compromise is Sen. Bill Nelson (R-FL), who voted for the agreement to establish the committee.
The Boston Globe praised Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) for her gritty willingness to seek a compromise, even though it angered Tea Partiers who might seek to challenge her in the 2016 Republican primary.
Then there’s the independent New Englander Angus King. The Maine senator summarized his stance as, “Passing a budget is the most fundamental task of governing, and it’s not been done for far too long.”
Party Establishment – These lawmakers recall an older era in Washington, when seniority dominated, congressional leadership called the shots, and results mattered as much as intentions.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) puts his service to the United States above his political party. An ally of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and foreign policy hawk, Graham questioned the strategy of Tea Partiers who were willing to shutdown the government and consider not raising the debt limit.
“I can understand fighting for your cause, but there comes a point when you have an obligation to your country as the whole,” Graham said, according to The Huffington Post.
Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) was the majority whip until 2011, when the GOP gained control of the House. The South Carolinian connects the Democratic Party to its anti-poverty history, in the past pushing budget plans that direct 10 percent of certain social program funds to communities where 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for more than three decades.
Hard Right – Conservatives have several seats on the committee, so expect the ideological tension of recent weeks to seethe through Christmas and into the New Year. For them, the only thing to do with the budget involves sharp cutting.
Rep. Diane Black (R-TN)—one of 144 House members who voted against the deal—ripped the compromise as a “blank check to continue Washington’s reckless spending.” But she also understands the Tea Party pressure well, having faced protests for supporting the 2011 debt ceiling increased that slashed the budget by more than $2 trillion over 10 years.
“Missed opportunity” was how the 80-year old Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) described the compromise that he opposed. When Murray issued her budget, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) quickly became the biggest thorn in her side, critiquing how she calculated her deficit savings.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) served on the failed 2011 “super committee” that led to the sequestration cuts. He was formerly president of the Club for Growth, the group that believes the debt ceiling should be used to force a balanced budget and that challenges Republican incumbents who are deemed too moderate. Not surprisingly, Toomey voted against the latest debt ceiling compromise.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) rode the 2010 Tea Party wave to Capitol Hill, while Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) is a proud member of Congress’ “Tea Party Caucus” who almost joined House leadership last year.
Hard Left – These are the liberals whose devotion to social programs makes it tough to cut entitlement programs. They could kill a simple change that Obama floated for Social Security: holding down costs by using a less generous measure of inflation known as chained CPI.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) opposes any benefit cuts and founded the “Defending Social Security Caucus.” Along with Sanders, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) signed a letter in 2012 opposing benefit cuts in the entitlement program.
When Salon.com asked freshman Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) this month about a deal that included chained CPI, her answer was blunt: “There’s no need for it to be on the table.”