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Durbin volunteers for duty on new deficit-reduction panel

August 04, 2011|By Peter Nicholas and Rick Pearson
  • Sen. Richard Durbin talks to reporters on Capitol Hill amid negotiations to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
Sen. Richard Durbin talks to reporters on Capitol Hill amid negotiations… (Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Chicago — The jockeying to serve on Congress’s debt-reduction super committee is well under way -- and one person letting it be known he wants the job is the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

Durbin, meeting with the Chicago Tribune editorial board on Thursday, said he has spoken to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) about serving on the 12-member body.

Under the debt deal signed by President Obama this week, Reid gets to appoint three members to the committee.  The other nine will be appointed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

“Would I like to be on this? I guess the honest answer is yes,’’ Durbin said.

Durbin carries some heavyweight credentials. He was a member of the Simpson-Bowles committee that proposed deep deficit reductions last year through a mix of spending cuts and tax revenue increases. And he was also a member of the “Gang of Six,’’ a bipartisan group of senators that sought to build on the Simpson-Bowles report, which was largely ignored after its release in December.

So, Durbin’s candidacy would seem like a good bet. But he’s not sure he’ll get the nod.

“Harry [Reid] is going through a real tough time,’’ Durbin said. “There are a lot of good people who want to be on it – a lot of good  reasons to put some on and not others. He just has to make the final decision.’’

It won’t be easy for the super committee to reach consensus. Democrats want to reduce the deficit in part by raising revenue; Republicans want to do it entirely through spending cuts.

The impasse brought the nation to the brink of default. As officials tried to work out a compromise, Durbin said he took part in six negotiating sessions in the White House’s Cabinet room with Obama and Republican leaders.

Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Durbin said, made clear that “taxes were absolutely unacceptable.’’

He added: “In fact, at one of those meetings, Cantor corrected Boehner when he thought he had erred and said [Republicans] might consider them. It was doctrinal for them. They were not going to agree to any increase in revenue.’’

Durbin said Thursday that Democrats will continue to press the issue of tax reform and new revenue as part of the next step in the debate and he believes there's a way around their opposition.

"The way through this is to take a look at this miserable tax code we have that has gone untouched and unexamined way too long. We lose $1.2 trillion a year to the tax code — deductions, credits exclusions. And that's the same total we collect in personal income taxes each year," Durbin said.

"Two-thirds of America's people in filing their taxes do not itemize, so they aren't taking advantage of the tax code but for the exclusion of health insurance premiums by employers and refundable tax credits. When it comes to the basic things that we first think of, mortgage interest deduction, charitable deduction, state and local tax deduction, they're not affected. Two-thirds of Americans don't take advantage of that," he said.

Durbin acknowledged that the mortgage interest deduction is "something that looks like it's really bread-and-butter middle-class tax help." But it isn't, he said. "If you look at where the revenues go, overwhelmingly they go to the highest income individuals, even on a mortgage interest deduction."

Illinois' senior senator isn't saying the deduction should be abolished, but instead should be measured by income.

Durbin said, "Democrats have to be prepared to talk about entitlement reform and Republicans have to be prepared to talk about revenue if we're both serious about meaningful deficit reduction. It's tough politically on both sides. I mean, it's as volatile as can be."

Members of the super congressional committee are to be named in coming days. The panel has until Nov. 23 to send a plan to Congress for an up or down vote. If the panel fails or if their plan is rejected, $1.2 trillion in spending cuts will automatically go into effect — half in domestic spending, including Medicare health coverage for the poor, and half in defense. The threat of those automatic cuts are supposed to serve as a trigger that will spur both sides to act.

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