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Hoyer, Pelosi Split on New Entitlements Panel

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) thinks creating a bipartisan fiscal commission is a swell idea. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) thinks it’s unnecessary.

The divergent views from the House’s top two Democrats come as alarm bells continue to be rung by outside watchdog groups and budget hawks that Congress has to do something to trim the $50 trillion or so in unfunded liabilities on the nation’s books due to the rapidly growing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security entitlements.

Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) proposed a bipartisan fiscal commission last week empowered with fast-track authority to bring spending and tax changes to the House and Senate floors, following a similar proposal from Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). Both proposals have been endorsed by a phalanx of budget watchdogs and Comptroller General David Walker.

Any commission would not make recommendations until after the November 2008 elections, given that few expect a major fiscal breakthrough in the heat of a presidential election year.

But initial reaction from Congressional leaders had been tepid. Pelosi gave the idea the cold shoulder, albeit diplomatically, in a statement issued in response to the Conrad/Gregg proposal.

“Medicare and Social Security are two of the most successful safety nets in our nation and any changes must be made on a bipartisan basis,” she said. “This can be done by the committees of jurisdiction in Congress; they have the experience, knowledge and authority for addressing issues that arise with entitlements.”

But Hoyer offered qualified support Friday.

“While I would like to believe that Congress could address these issues through the regular legislative process, the experience of recent years suggests that this is extremely difficult in the current political environment,” Hoyer said. “Thus, I support the Conrad-Gregg and Cooper-Wolf proposals in concept, although I have concerns about several specific provisions.”

Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Farnen Bernards said Hoyer in particular wasn’t keen on the proposal that the commission’s suggestions would be considered without opportunity for amendments.

“My preference certainly would be to have Members of Congress and this administration make recommendations that are considered in this Congress,” Hoyer said. But Hoyer noted that the Bush administration is on the way out and has been loath to put all options on the table.

Getting any kind of agreement on the framework for a deal on entitlements has been poisoned by deal-breakers each side tends to carry into the negotiations. The Bush administration has been frosty to raising taxes, while Democrats have labeled Social Security privatization a deal-killer.

Congressional aides sought to downplay the split.

“Speaker Pelosi and Leader Hoyer led the fight against the administration’s risky Social Security privatization scheme,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said. “As Democrats, we’re committed to ensuring our nation meets the long-term challenges facing our entitlements.”

“I don’t think it’s a major difference,” Bernards said. “They agree that there is an issue and we need to address it. They’ve had conversations about this and they understand where each other is at. Certainly they will work together on how to address it. There is time for discussion on how to address this issue with members who are active on this issue as well as the chairmen.”

House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) said Monday that he sees a role for a commission, but not one with powerful fast-track powers to limit debate and amendments.

“A lot of people are going to have the same problems I have with this one — delegating a lot of power to a small group and allowing them to ram it through,” he said.

Spratt said that a commission should largely be made up of Members of Congress. “That keeps the analysis practical and realistic and secondly, in the event there is a report from the commission, these members will be invested in the outcome,” Spratt said.

A commission has mainly been floated as a way to break the political logjam facing entitlement reform.

Walker noted that Members could use the political cover that a commission would provide. That was the rationale for similar commissions, like the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which had similar fast-track authority allowing Congress a simple up-or-down vote in each chamber without amendments.

John Spragens, a spokesman for Cooper, said the sponsors are still hopeful of getting Pelosi’s support and are willing to make changes provided that the commission has a very open mandate with everything on the table and that the bill has “teeth.”

But the bill isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon — like Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) isn’t a fan — and Democrats have their hands full juggling pressing issues such as Iraq, appropriations bills and energy.

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