Appointees to debt committee named

NO DREAM TEAM::Two of the appointees have a history of working with Democrats, but a budget watchdog group said the nine members named so far did not inspire optimism

NY Times News Service, Washington

Fri, Aug 12, 2011 - Page 7

The top US Republicans in the House and the Senate appointed six lawmakers on Wednesday to a powerful new congressional committee that is supposed to find ways to reduce federal budget deficits by at least US$1.5 trillion over 10 years.

Two of the Republican appointees have a history of working with Democrats. All oppose tax increases, but at least one supports eliminating tax breaks like the subsidies for ethanol.

US Speaker of the House John Boehner, chose the three House Republicans: Jeb Hensarling, Dave Camp and Fred Upton.

Hensarling, the chairman of the House Republican Conference, will be co-chairman, along with -Senator Patty Murray.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, chose senators Jon Kyl, Rob Portman and Pat Toomey for the 12-member panel.

The panel, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, is supposed to come up with recommendations by Nov. 23. If it fails, or if its proposals are not enacted, the government will automatically cut spending across the board to ensure savings.

If just one panel member crosses party lines, the committee can send its recommendations to the floor of the House and the Senate for up-or-down votes without amendments. If a deal is to be struck in the middle, it is likely to involve Portman, Senator John Kerry and perhaps Senator Max Baucus, congressional aides said.

People who favor a “grand bargain” say they hope panel members will feel pressure to be less dogmatic than usual because of several factors: the recent downgrade of the US government’s credit rating, the weakness of the US economy, the plunge in the stock market and a loss of public confidence in federal officials — what Standard & Poor’s described as the weakening of “American policymaking and political institutions.”

Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, said the nine members named so far did not inspire optimism.

“I would not call it a dream team for a grand bargain,” he said. “If the joint committee does anything serious, it will have to include changes in taxes and entitlement programs” like those recommended by the co-chairmen of US President Barack Obama’s deficit-reduction commission, Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and former senator Alan Simpson, a Republican.

Three members of the new panel — Baucus, Camp and Hensarling — were members of the Bowles-Simpson group and voted against its proposal, Bixby said.

Changes in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and tax policy are all on the table for the new panel.

Camp is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which has authority over taxes, Medicare and Social Security. Upton is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has authority over Medicaid and parts of Medicare.

Senate Democrats on the new panel, besides Murray, are Baucus and Kerry. US Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, has until Tuesday to fill the remaining three slots on the panel.

Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican; Toomey, a former president of the Club for Growth; and Hensarling, a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, are among the most conservative members of Congress and rarely vote with Democrats on issues that split the parties. Toomey voted last week against the bill that raised the debt limit, saying it did not do enough to cut spending.

In more than two decades in Congress, Upton, a moderate conservative, has often shown an independent streak. He supported expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, for example. However, last fall, under fire from conservatives, he tacked to the right in his successful effort to become chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Portman, a House member from 1993 to 2005, was White House budget director and US trade representative under former US president George W. Bush. In Congress, he has worked well with Democrats — on pension and tax issues, for example — even as he has voted consistently with other Republicans.

Kyl, who delves into the details of legislation and policy, is a member of the Finance Committee and participated in deficit-reduction talks with US Vice President Joe Biden in May and June. He has resisted cuts in military spending and in Medicare payments to doctors and health-maintenance organizations.