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The Next D.C. Guessing Game: Who's On Debt Panel?

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will play a key role in choosing Republicans for the supercommittee. Could he pick himself?
J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will play a key role in choosing Republicans for the supercommittee. Could he pick himself?

Congress avoided a federal default this week by raising the debt ceiling in exchange for promised spending reductions, but it ceded the difficult details to a new 12-member "supercommittee."

If reaction to the bipartisan panel of Senate and House members, yet to be appointed, is any measure, its chances of agreeing on ways to reduce the nation's deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade are slim — no matter who gets picked to serve.

Liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has called it an "anti-democratic," "honey, I shrunk the Congress" scheme that concentrates too much power in committee members.

Editorialists at the conservative National Reviewpredict it is "almost guaranteed to fail," given how far apart the parties have proven they are.

( The Daily Show's Jon Stewart spoofed the supercommittee as "having powers far above those of mortal legislators" but suggested that it might not be "able to save Congress from its archenemy: the disappointed American people.")

Party leaders have been quick to draw lines in the sand about just what they think the committee should do.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says that the committee will "focus on entitlements." His Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), says that higher taxes have to be part of any deal.

"It's a committee destined for activity, not necessarily for success," says Republican consultant Ed Rogers, who worked in the Reagan White House and as a top adviser for the George H.W. Bush 1987 presidential campaign.

Why, after all, would a committee named by warring congressional leaders emerge any less divided than Congress as a whole when the issues in play remain tax increases that Republicans oppose and entitlement cuts that are anathema to Democrats?

The answer to that question may lie in the alternative to stalemate: If the supercommittee fails to reach an aggreement, or if Congress fails to enact the panel's recommendtions by Christmas, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts designed to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion would be triggered.

Those cuts, to be made over 10 years, would be divided equally between domestic and defense spending, with two big caveats: entitlement programs Social Security and Medicaid would be protected from the trigger cuts, as would funding for ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And only 2 percent of Medicare can be cut, and only from providers.

Pro-defense legislators, and lobbyists, are alarmed by the alternative path.

Even those on the other side of the debate recognize their concern. "The defense budget is very vulnerable if there's a deadlock," says former Rep. Martin Frost, a Texas Democrat and former president of the progressive advocacy group America Votes. "You really cannot tell right now whether the commission will succeed."

"Some would obviously rather see deadlock than a deal," says Frost, now a Washington lawyer. "But there are countervailing pressures."

Who Gets Picked?

All eyes in Washington, from Capitol Hill to lobbyists' offices, are now on congressional leaders, who have until mid-month to name their committee members.

With a 12-member, evenly divided committee, the looming question is who may be the seventh swing vote who could push through a bipartisan agreement?

Few expect that person to emerge from the deeply partisan House.

Interviews with sources close to congressional leaders in both parties, as well as discussions with informed Hill watchers across the city, painted a picture of how the supercommittee may take shape.

Coming off the deficit debate where Tea Party-fueled GOP House freshmen drove the deal, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will likely be looking for a lineup that would make that faction happy.

That could likely include Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), perhaps Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, (R-MI), a longtime advocate of tax reform.

With entitlements left largely untouched if the committee fails, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi appears to have little incentive to appoint someone anxious to make a deal with Republicans.

Look to her to possibly tap Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus; and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat who served on the president's bipartisan deficit reduction commission and is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, may also be a natural pick for Pelosi.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) could land a seat on the debt panel.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) could land a seat on the debt panel.

The real attention is on the Senate, and, in particular, on McConnell.

"The key is who McConnell puts on," Frost says. "There will be pressure on him not to name a 'rogue elephant' " — someone who might compromise too easily with Democrats.

But also pressure to strike a deal to avoid the defense-cut trigger.

Rogers sees McConnell turning to Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, both on the Senate Finance Committee. It is unlikely that he will pick defense hawks Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, or his fellow committeeman Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

One other possible candidate: McConnell himself.

"I would think the leaders would have to appoint themselves," says Rogers. "And McConnell's the only person in Washington who ever has a plan — a beginning, a middle and an end."

Reid would likely turn to Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana. His committee included members of the so-called Gang of Six, the three Democrats and three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee who unsuccessfully attempted to broker a debt-ceiling deal.

"The people named will clearly be leadership loyalists," Frost says. "No wild cards need apply."

Rogers says that, though it may look unseemly for leaders to choose themselves, it could help them sell the final deal.

"It's going to be a hard sell, and I don't think leaders buy themselves any more authority or credibility by not being on the committee," he says. "At the end of the day, this is going to require a lot of deference and respect from people who are going to have to vote on it."

And, as the debt-ceiling debate proved, there is not a whole lot of deference and respect going around these days on Capitol Hill.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.