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Common ground on deficit

The 'super committee' is packed with party stalwarts, but they do have some shared goals.

August 12, 2011

The new law that allows President Obama to raise the debt ceiling created a bipartisan "super committee" to seek a major deficit-reduction deal by Thanksgiving, and this week congressional leaders named the 12 lawmakers who will be on it. Tellingly, not one of them signed on to any of the bipartisan budget proposals that have surfaced in the last year. Four were on the White House fiscal commission that offered a bold plan in December to close the federal budget gap, but all of them voted against it. And none is part of the so-called Gang of Six senators who outlined another way to tackle the deficit last month.

Instead, the membership of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction consists almost entirely of lawmakers with close ties to their party's leadership. For example, one of the Senate Democrats, Patty Murray of Washington, leads her party's fundraising committee for Senate candidates; one of the House Democrats, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, served in the same role for House candidates last year. And all six Republicans have signed a pledge not to vote for any tax increases, which Democrats say is a prerequisite for any cuts to entitlements.

This is the group whose goal is to cut $1.5 trillion from federal deficits over the next decade? Good times, right?

By packing the committee with party stalwarts, however, congressional leaders have improved its prospects. That's because the group will have to sell any plan it comes up with to the highly polarized House as well as the marginally less fractious Senate. Conservatives and liberals alike will have to be persuaded that the plan is the best their side could hope to achieve, and that it's a better option than the $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts that would otherwise go into effect.

Of course, the first part of the committee's work — reaching consensus on a plan — will be no mean feat. The two parties are fundamentally split over the goal of the exercise, with Republicans determined to shrink the federal government and Democrats just trying to shape up its balance sheet. They're also at odds over the timing of austerity measures, which Republicans see as a tonic to the economy and Democrats as a poison.

Nevertheless, the two sides have a common interest in a sweeping tax overhaul that would broaden the base and lower rates, even if they disagree about how far rates should drop and how much revenue the change should generate. They have a shared desire to solve the federal government's problem with rising healthcare costs, even if they have different visions for Medicare and Medicaid. If it really wants to do it, this group of 12 can reach a deal. And given who they are, they may just be able to persuade an uncompromising Congress to accept it.

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