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December 21, 2014

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Debt-reduction committee’s failure sets up fight over whether Congress should alter automatic cuts

Updated Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 | 5:01 p.m.

Leaders of the bipartisan committee that tasked with putting the country on a track toward fiscal solvency by shaving $1.2 trillion from the national debt announced this afternoon that they will not have a plan by their deadline; an inconclusive end that will trigger across-the-board cuts to the federal budget heavily weighted toward defense and homeland security spending.

“We have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline,” wrote co-chairs Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington State, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas, in their announcement. “Despite our inability to bridge the committee’s significant differences, we end this process united in our belief that the nation’s fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve.”

Their failure is the final chapter in the procedural and policy experiment Sen. Harry Reid set up when he proposed the creation of the 12-member body that has come to be known as the “super committee” to find a way forward on debt reduction -- Congress approved it as part of the bill they passed to raise the debt limit in August.

But it’s only the opening act in a much greater -- and potentially more important -- political experiment, as Congress debates what to do from this point forward; and whether or not to give themselves a second chance to get things right before the automatic across-the-board cuts take effect in 2013.

Politically speaking, the fallout from the breakdown of the super committee confirms that the chasm between the Republican and Democratic parties is so wide that even when they begin to agree (last week, for example, conservative Republican Sen. and committee appointee Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania was trying to open the door to tax hikes), they are destined to stay divided.

It also sets up a fresh round of squabbles over how best to cut the budget just in time for the 2012 campaign season, arguments that the parties are banking on to revive their political messaging for the elections.

Reid sounded the opening bell on the campaign messaging within minutes of the official announcement that the committee had failed.

“For the good of our country, Democrats were prepared to strike a grand bargain that would make painful cuts while asking millionaires to pay their fair share,” Reid said in a written statement. “But Republicans never came close to meeting us halfway.”

Several hours remain until the super committee's deadline -- officially set for Wednesday, but committee rules that require any proposal to be posted for public comment for 48 hours before a vote make the effective deadline midnight tonight. Already a group of lawmakers is calling for Congress to implement some of the cuts agreed upon by the committee.

“One way or another, we're going to have $1.2 trillion in reduced spending. It can either be done the ugly way...or we could do it more intelligently,” Republican Senate Whip and committee appointee Jon Kyl of Arizona said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. "We do have the opportunity, even if the committee fails, to work around the sequester so that we still have $1.2 trillion in savings over 10 years.”

But Sen. Harry Reid and President Barack Obama are saying they won't agree to change the terms of the $1.2 trillion across-the-board cut, and Obama has made clear that he would veto any attempt to do it.

This is the new fight.

The debt committee was charged with making $1.2-$1.5 trillion in cuts to the federal budget, with the knowledge that if they failed, automatic “sequestration” cuts would kick in. These cuts amount to $1.2 trillion, split 50-50 between defense-related spending and other mandatory spending programs. Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and Medicare payments to recipients, however, are not subject to the chop.

That puts Reid -- who designed the super committee process, its terms, and has no regrets about anything that’s happened thus far -- in a pretty good political position.

He and his party have been working to claim credit for protecting seniors and soon-to-be seniors -- the two voting blocs with the most reliable turnout at election time. It’s a message they’ve been hammering since Republicans voted to diminish Social Security and Medicare spending as part of the Paul Ryan-drafted fiscal 2012 budget earlier this year.

Post-super committee bickering over the across-the-board cuts -- we’ll call it the drive to do a sequester switcheroo -- get refreshed if Democrats continue to stand up for Social Security, veterans benefits and Medicare against a Republican push to move the cuts away from defense.

They’re getting a chance to, now that Republican leaders are pushing for Congress to alter the sequestration cuts before they occur.

Already a group of lawmakers is calling for Congress to implement some of the cuts agreed upon by the committee.

“One way or another, we're going to have $1.2 trillion in reduced spending. It can either be done the ugly way...or we could do it more intelligently,” Republican Senate Whip and committee appointee Jon Kyl of Arizona said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. "We do have the opportunity, even if the committee fails, to work around the sequester so that we still have $1.2 trillion in savings over 10 years.”

Reid and President Barack Obama are saying they won't agree to change the terms of the $1.2 trillion across-the-board cut, and Obama has made clear that he would veto any attempt to do it.

The logic: if the cuts don’t come from defense, they would likely have to be sustained in Medicare or Social Security, or Congress would have to raise tax revenues, and Democrats consider their position in those fights to be the party’s biggest and best campaign winners.

But Republicans aren’t shying away from this fight. They’ve embraced the idea that Social Security and Medicare need to reduce costs to survive, and that defense spending is mostly sacrosanct. Now, party leaders are also going on the offensive, charging that because the sequester allows for a 2 percent cut to Medicare payments to providers, it would be detrimental to seniors, and echoing the testimony of Obama’s Defense Department chief, Leon Panetta, warning that the cuts will be devastating to the nation’s defenses.

In Nevada, where Senate opponents Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Shelley Berkley took very opposite positions on the bill to set the super committee, relative peace and unanimity has reigned: both lawmakers expressed hope, but not optimism, last week that the committee would emerge with something they could support.

“I don’t want to put any bad luck on the super committee,” Berkley told the Sun. “I’m still hoping that they come up with a plan.”

Heller said he would not dance on the super committee’s grave, even though he had been against it since the beginning.

“I was critical because I didn’t like this process...Frankly, I want them to succeed,” he said. “I don’t see this as an opportunity to say I told you so; I’m just disappointed that this is the direction that things went.”

But now that the committee’s failure is final, some are striking a harsher tone.

"Washington has again failed the American people. As the only member of the Nevada delegation to oppose forming a Super Committee, I've said all along that a secretive group of 12 was not the answer to crippling unemployment and systemic government over-spending,” Heller said in a statement released this afternoon. “Given the significant responsibilities the Super Committee had to the American people, its failure is particularly disappointing.”

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  1. This playing out in a more straight-forward manner than I thought it would.

    When the committee members were first named I thought Reid was getting tricky and setting it up for failure in the Senate on an up/down vote along party lines. But instead, it is going to die in the committee itself.

    In either case, the end-result is the same: the Democrats get political talking points right when they need them the most next year. In the meantime, we get the worse possible solution for a "deficit reduction" over 10 years that is basically insignificant in real terms.

  2. They should keep the agreed to cuts. Its the dems fault the commitee failed.

    The cuts stand...dems at fault. Thats my take.