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Next Debt Test: Panel Picking

The debt deal between the White House and Congress has been law for less than 24 hours, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are already expressing skepticism about a new “super committee” and its ability to come through with at least $1.2 trillion in additional budget savings.

The 12-Member bipartisan, bicameral joint committee is one of the cornerstones of the new law designed to cut the deficit by $3 trillion during the next 10 years while extending the debt ceiling through the 2012 elections. But the wide differences that created one of Washington’s ugliest battles this summer will not be bridged in 10 weeks, sources say.

So despite open protestations otherwise, it’s likely the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction could find itself as just the latest gridlocked bipartisan panel come its Thanksgiving deadline.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have 14 days to appoint their designees to the panel. And as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday, Washington observers will have “a very good indication of whether this committee is going to work when you see who’s appointed to it.”

While the political pressures on leaders to make selections that are pleasing to different party factions might be great — especially on the GOP side, where tea party interests have reigned supreme — aides suggested that loyalty to leadership could be the biggest factor in their choices.

Because the policy positions of both sides are so entrenched, with Republicans refusing to budge on revenues and Democrats still seeking continued protection of entitlements, leaders’ choices will be about people who will exhibit party discipline and not go rogue on their top brass.

“It’s all about loyalists,” one Senate aide said. “The leaders are not going to do something that will make them feel nervous about these negotiations — nobody wants freelancing.”

The most serious political nihilists on the Hill questioned whether the composition of the panel would even matter, given that the new committee has just 10 weeks to do what the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of six” could not do in six months and what the president’s fiscal commission could not do in eight months. They also wondered whether the enforcement mechanism, which would trigger $1.2 trillion in cuts, would in practice be all that different than what the panel would come up with.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — a member of the gang of six and a Democratic negotiator in talks with the president last month — cast some doubt that the panel could do all that it set out to do.

“I certainly understand and am puzzled in some ways, but the joint committee’s basic charge is to find in 10 weeks anywhere from $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in savings over the next 10 years,” Durbin said. “In 10 weeks, these 12 Members of the House and Senate are to come together and reach an agreement. It’s a daunting task.”

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who participated in the May and June bipartisan talks with Vice President Joseph Biden, took a teasing tone with reporters Tuesday in declining to name a short list of candidates.

“A. Be a glutton for punishment; B. Have a real good bladder; and C. Be able to spend some time in August at this job, which none of us want to do,” Kyl quipped about the qualifications necessary to be a member of the panel.

In terms of who actually will get the call, lawmakers and aides are keeping mum. However, there seemed to be a consensus that appointing members of the former gang of six, for example, would be politically impossible. There could be some easy picks for each leader, however. McConnell could choose a Member such as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a freshman who has already proved himself as a valuable counsel on budget matters to leaders. Portman also served as House Budget chairman and director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush.

Picking gang of six member Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) would be tricky for McConnell, however, because Coburn has attracted the ire of conservatives who feel he has given too much ground on increasing revenues.

On the House side, Democratic aides note that Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) and Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) would be consensus picks that appease minority groups and policy wonks. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), ranking member on the Budget Committee and a frequent point man for Pelosi on fiscal matters, could also be selected. And Rep. Robert Andrews (N.J.), an eloquent party spokesman and Pelosi favorite, could be an underdog choice.

Moderates have also been angling for a spot, even beginning their campaign before the deal was finalized. Several members of the New Democrat and Blue Dog coalitions sent a letter to Boehner and Pelosi last week saying, “We expect to see Members appointed who are committed to the balanced principles that are reflected in the proposals developed by Simpson-Bowles and the Gang of Six.”

Reps. Jim Himes (Conn.), Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) and Jim Cooper (Tenn.), who signed the letter, were named by several Democratic aides as potential choices from the party’s more moderate wing.

No amount of speculation from reporters could prompt Pelosi into discussing her potential picks at a press conference Tuesday, and Boehner has been equally mum and likely won’t give any signals as to his picks before they’re announced.

“It’s obviously an important decision, and the Speaker will be consulting with the entire leadership team and Members of our Conference as we move forward,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.

Asked during a CNBC interview Tuesday about whether he wanted to serve on the new panel, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said, “I’ll serve if the Speaker wants me to serve.”

With the freshman class making up more than a third of the entire House GOP Conference, one of the first-term lawmakers could be a surprise pick for Boehner. Rep. Diane Black (Tenn.) is one of two freshmen serving on the Ways and Means Committee, and Republicans chose her for a leadership post at the National Republican Congressional Committee and to be the freshman representative on the Republican Policy Committee. Republican aides also suggested Rep. Allen West, a GOP firebrand who emerged as an unlikely champion of the debt deal and forceful advocate for Boehner, could be an option.

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