TOPICS > Politics

Bipartisan Deficit Super Committee to Play by Different Rules Than Congress

August 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi named three Democrats to the 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction on Thursday. Margret Warner discusses the committee's members, its unique rules and its deficit-reduction goals with Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and NPR reporter Andrea Seabrook.

MARGARET WARNER: The makeup of a congressional super committee on deficit reduction was completed today. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi named the three House Democrats to the 12-member panel, which faces a tight deadline to forge a consensus, or else.

The super committee was created by the debt ceiling compromise President Obama signed into law last week to avert a default on U.S. debts. Co-chairing the group will be Republican Congressman Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State. Their committee must find at least $1.5 trillion in deficit savings over 10 years and make its recommendation by Thanksgiving for an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate.

Failure to propose a deal or to win congressional approval will trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts. That means super committee members have to get past their parties’ lines in the sand.

Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have insisted entitlement spending cuts aren’t on the table unless higher tax revenues are, too.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: The only way we can arrive at a fair arrangement for the American people with this joint committee is to have equal sharing. There has to be equal spending cuts. There has to be some revenue that matches that.

MARGARET WARNER: But during the debt ceiling debate, Republicans insisted there by no tax increases, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that would continue.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., minority leader: To that end, our first step will be to make sure that the Republicans who sit on the powerful cost-cutting committee are serious people who put the best interests of the American people and the principles that we have fought for throughout this debate first.

MARGARET WARNER: Arguing against another deadlock, Standard and Poor’s stated reasons for downgrading the government’s AAA credit rating last Friday. The ratings agency said political brinkmanship had made America’s ability to manage its finances less stable, less effective and less predictable.

And for more on what the appointments to the so-called super committee tell us, we are joined by Andrea Seabrook, congressional correspondent for National Public Radio, and Norman Ornstein, Congress-watcher and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Welcome back to both of you.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Great to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Norm, as we look at the makeup of this super committee appointed by the leadership of all the various — both houses and both parties, what does it tell you about how eager they are to get a deal?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, first, it is a leadership-driven committee.

And if you look on the surface, it’s a little troubling. The Democrats represent the Democratic Party. That means they’re off on the left of the ideological spectrum. And the Republicans are on the right. And there isn’t much room in the middle.

At the same time, despite all of this rhetoric, we have got a group of veterans here. People who have — who know these issues. We have people who served on the Simpson-Bowles commission, even though some of them voted against the plan. We have people who negotiated with Vice President Biden. We don’t have any members of the Senate’s Gang of Six, but you have got people who don’t have to do studying to reach a deal.

And they’re ready to pull many elements of this off the shelf, whether it’s a tax reform package or some of the budget cuts. They have been down that path before.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?

ANDREA SEABROOK, National Public Radio: Yes, I find that there most certainly are people here who know how to talk politics and talking points, but there’s also a lot of policy brawn. You have committee chairmen. You have people who are used to getting things done, getting them through the Congress. And I find a real glimmer of optimism in here.

MARGARET WARNER: And working across the aisle?

ANDREA SEABROOK: Yes, there are people here who have done that.

I mean, they’re most — I hesitate to say they’re bipartisan or — you know, but there are people here who are used to working together to get things done.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let’s jump into the first slate. Let’s start with the House Republicans, since they drove us all to this point.

And we have on that committee, or on that slate, Dave Camp from Michigan, Jeb Hensarling from Texas, and Fred Upton from Michigan. What is it?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It’s a good committee for Michigan.


NORMAN ORNSTEIN: But Dave Camp is the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. And he was on the Simpson-Bowles commission, voted against it because of tax increases.

But perhaps the most encouraging thing that we have to say right now is an interview that Camp — from an interview that Camp gave with Reuters where he said everything, including taxes, is on the table.

MARGARET WARNER: And that was today.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It was today.

Camp has also worked very hard for tax reform. He spent a lot of time with it. And let’s face it. Any deal we get has to be a trade of significant tax reform for revenue increases. And Camp is a key player.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about Hensarling, who is the co-chairman, and Upton?

ANDREA SEABROOK: Hensarling is a very sharp-tongued partisan. He is, as you say, one of the co-chairmen.

And it says something that the Republicans in the House have put someone on there who is very strong and will not budge on these issues. Fred Upton just took over the chairmanship of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. He too is down in the weeds on issues, but not as — we don’t expect quite as much movement on his part.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let’s move on to the Senate Republicans. And there, we have — these were all appointed by Mitch McConnell — Jon Kyl of Arizona, Rob Portman and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Andrea, you go first.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Very interesting that we have two freshmen in this group. Rob Portman and Pat Toomey are both freshmen. Pat Toomey is much closer to that wave of conservative Republicans that came in, in this last election.

MARGARET WARNER: The Tea Party — including the Tea Party.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Including the Tea Party.

Rob Portman is a freshman, although you could hardly say he’s a rookie in Washington. This is a man who was in the House. He was in the Bush administration. He has striked — striked a more — struck a more partisan tone since he’s come into the Senate. That said, this is a man who was in the Office of Management and Budget. He knows numbers.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about Jon Kyl, retiring next year?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes, retiring, but he is the number-two Republican leader. And, of course, he was the Republican representative at the talks with Joe Biden. He walked out on the tax issue. He’s a strong ideologue.

The key there is Portman, who not only started his political career — very few people know this — his first boss what Steve Solarz, a liberal Democrat — but then moved on to a protege of Alan Simpson of the Simpson-Bowles commission, not just budget director, but trade representative, so he knows the global economy, worked very closely with Ben Cardin in the House. So, he knows bipartisanship, but he is a loyalist. And he is a real key player.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the House Democrats — and, Norm, I will begin with you, but maybe combine it — do we see any mavericks here, Xavier Becerra, James Clyburn and Chris Van Hollen?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: All key people in the leadership chosen by Pelosi because of their experience.

Van Hollen is the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, at the Biden talks, Clyburn also at those talks. Becerra almost became trade representative. Smart, savvy pros, leaders, they’re not going to diverge very much from what Pelosi wants or what the caucus wants, but they have all indicated a willingness to cut a deal.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Remember, Becerra was on Simpson-Bowles also. And, yes, these are all people who are…

MARGARET WARNER: Though he voted no on the recommendations.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Yes, he voted no, but he was there.

And when it comes down to a deal like this, when you have such a compact time frame, knowing the landscape as you go in is really important. And though these people are close to the leadership, they have all signaled that they really want to get something done here and they’re there for a purpose.

MARGARET WARNER: And they’re ready to put both arms of the thing on the table.


MARGARET WARNER: That is tax cuts and entitlements.

All right, and, finally, the Senate Democrats. Now, there, we have Max Baucus of Montana, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and the co-chair, Patty Murray of Washington state.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Again, this is another signal that Patty Murray, who has been on the talking points, fighting hard throughout this debate…

MARGARET WARNER: Especially on Medicare and Social Security.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Yes, the line that we won’t balance this on the backs of the older — the old and the sick.

She’s there opposite Jeb Hensarling, the other hard partisan. But having Max Baucus and Sen. Kerry in there, you have two people who are used to getting things done and getting them through the Senate. I think this is where we may see the real work done in here.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And John Kerry is a — was a bit of a surprise here, and since — he’s in the Finance Committee, but, of course, he’s the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

But he’s there because, having really sort of come out of a few years of wandering in the desert after he lost the presidency, he is in full form now, all of those talents. And I would look to Kerry, along with Portman, to be potential deal-makers here.

Note that there is only one woman on this committee, and that’s Patty Murray. And, you know, now it’s very tough with 12 people to get everything and everyone represented. But that’s probably not quite the representation that some would have liked.

MARGARET WARNER: So how important is it that, in the legislation that created this, you only need — the committee only needs seven votes to get it to Congress?

ANDREA SEABROOK: This, the legislation that created this, is remarkable, in that it takes away some of the biggest hurdles to getting things done in Washington.

You don’t need the 60 votes in the Senate. You don’t — you bypass the ability of the majority in the House to keep things from coming to the floor.


ANDREA SEABROOK: Yes, or amend it, no poison pills, no blocking it at all from coming to the floor.

So, if you just have six, all of the sides and plus one, you can really bring these to the floor. And, remember, there’s that sword of Damocles sort of hanging above their heads, the idea of massive cuts across the board.

MARGARET WARNER: But you’re saying, Norm, though, that all these people are close to their respective leaderships. You’re not going to see somebody suddenly flip over and against the views of their leadership, go with — say, a Democrat go with all the Republicans.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, one can imagine a scenario, if the global economy is cratering, where one of these people decides to go over to the other side, and it’s a 7-5 vote.

What does characterize this group that makes it different from Simpson-Bowles, say, that needed a supermajority, is that that is the only thing you needed to happen. But it’s far more likely — and Camp’s comments signaled it — that the leaders are going to maneuver to try and find a deal as well.

And what also was interesting about Camp’s comments is, this committee has a fairly narrow charge to begin with, $1.2 trillion in additional cuts.

MARGARET WARNER: One-point-five, I think…

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Oh, $1.5 trillion — excuse me — coming mostly from discretionary spending, domestic and not the entitlements, and defense.

But they have an opening to do whatever they want. And whatever they come out with does get an up-or-down vote, unamended. So the chance for a grand bargain here is there. And, you know, Obi-Wan Kenobi, they’re our only hope.

MARGARET WARNER: Grand bargain being something even bigger.

Well, we’re going to have to leave it…

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Four trillion.

MARGARET WARNER: Which was the original Simpson-Bowles idea.


MARGARET WARNER: Andrea Seabrook and Norm Ornstein, thank you.

ANDREA SEABROOK: It’s a pleasure.