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Entitlement Panel Sponsors Hopeful in Defeat

House backers of a bipartisan fiscal commission that would have authority to bring an overhaul of taxes and spending to the House and Senate floor with limited amendments say they are gaining momentum for their cause but still face a high hurdle in overcoming the resistance of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and powerful committee chairmen.

The bill sponsored by Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has 95 co-sponsors, and Wolf failed by a single vote, 31-32, to attach it to a spending bill last week after Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) made an impassioned plea to kill it. The amendment would have passed if only some of its Democratic co-sponsors had backed it, but they argued that it was the wrong forum.

“I’m pumped,” Cooper said, noting that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has supported the concept, has had discussions with Members and with outside experts, including former Comptroller General David Walker, last week.

“Steny has been very supportive,” Cooper said. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) “has been on the bill since March. We’re right where we want to be.”

Cooper said the looming entitlement and fiscal crisis will be an issue in the fall campaigns, and Congress needs to at least make an effort to deal with it.

“Members will have to show something before November,” he said. “This is just a punt, but it’s better than a fumble.”

Hoyer was noncommittal in an interview, reaffirming that he supports the concept of a fiscal commission but has to have talks with chairmen, including Obey, Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.), Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Energy and Commerce Chairmen John Dingell (D-Mich.) before deciding what to do.

And he noted that Speaker Pelosi hasn’t endorsed the idea.

“The Speaker thinks we can do it in-house, and that’s her view,” he said. “I’m not making any decisions on that at this point in time.”

The Speaker would effectively be giving to the commission some of her power to control what comes to the floor under the fast-track rules. There are precedents for fast-track authority, with the Defense Base Closure and Realignment process cited frequently.

Cooper said the commission legislation could easily be tweaked to make leadership and chairmen more comfortable with it, including adding representation from Appropriations and Ways and Means and limiting outside members.

Obey had strongly objected to the lack of Appropriations representation on the committee and blasted the enhanced powers it would give to the chairman of the Budget Committee and to “outside academics” to write legislation, which he called “patently ridiculous.”

But Blue Dog Co-Chairman Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) spoke up for the bill in defiance of Obey. “Rome is burning. We’ve got a mess. You know it, and I know it. What we’re doing as a government cannot be sustained.”

“I think everyone knows in their heart that this has to be done,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who helped lead the charge in the Appropriations Committee. “I don’t think you’ve seen the last of it at all. … The Blue Dogs clearly have a spark in their organization as of yesterday.”

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