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Some Members Not Content on the Sidelines

Leadership barely finished appointing Members to the new Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction before legislators outside the process began chiming in on what a final agreement should look like and what process the panel should use to reach one.

Ranging from calls for bipartisanship from House Blue Dogs to thinly veiled partisan demands from Senate progressives to bicameral calls for transparency, Members were already looking to influence the proceedings in any way they could.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) led a group of 22 other liberal Senators in urging Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to “put jobs first.”

Citing recent discouraging economic news and anemic growth, the 23 Senators wrote a letter to the Kentucky Republican asking for “targeted investments in economic growth and job creation.”

“Over the course of the last few months, the default debate sounded to many Americans as if it was taking place in a vacuum that did not include enough discussion of the recession and its aftermath,” the letter read. “Let us be very clear: our fiscal challenge is directly linked to the jobs crisis and we cannot solve the former without tackling the latter.”

Meanwhile, Blue Dog Coalition leaders Thursday called on their Democratic colleagues to avoid partisanship and work with Republicans on the committee to craft a workable solution.

In a letter signed by Blue Dog Co-Chairmen Heath Shuler (N.C.), John Barrow (Ga.), Mike Ross (Ark.) and Dan Boren (Okla.) and other coalition leaders, the Blue Dogs urged Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) “to work with your colleagues to achieve a balanced, bipartisan solution that will control our nation’s debt and ensure that the United States remains the leader in the world economy.”

“As policy makers we have a clear choice in front of us: pursue a partisan approach that caters to the political extremes, or work together as Americans to put our nation’s fiscal house in order,” the lawmakers added. “Therefore, we urge you to put politics aside and work across party lines to develop a fair and feasible path to fixing our long-term debt.”

Moderate Democrats have said they are looking for a comprehensive package, and though they will not have one of their own in the committee’s ranks, they would be pleased to provide feedback through an advisory committee of some sort, a senior Democratic aide said.

Calls for transparency in the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction are also mounting, with another top Democrat joining the pack Thursday, just after House Democrats announced their picks for the committee, which rounded out its membership.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy sent a letter Thursday to the panel’s co-chairmen, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), urging them to adopt committee rules that ensure transparency.

“Open government is neither a Democratic issue, nor a Republican issue — it is truly an American value and virtue that we all must uphold,” the Vermont Democrat wrote. “It is in this bipartisan spirit that I urge you to adopt transparency measures for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that reflect this American value.”

Though he did not specify what measures he would prefer, Leahy joins a growing list of Members concerned with openness for a Congressional committee that has extensive authority.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), for one, last week called for the proceedings of the committee to be public.

“The American people are watching to see if the bipartisan Joint Committee will develop a plan to responsibly reduce the deficit in a balanced way while promoting economic growth and creating jobs,” Pelosi said in a statement Friday. “The work of this Committee will affect all Americans, and its deliberations should be open the press, to the public and webcast.”

Following suit was a pair of junior Members from both sides of the aisle. Reps. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a co-founder of the House Transparency Caucus, are gathering signatures for a letter to House leadership outlining a four-point plan to keep the committee transparent.

In addition to public webcasts of meetings, the lawmakers want final legislative language of the committee’s product to be posted online for 72 hours before a committee vote.

They are also suggesting that committee members disclose all campaign contributions and meetings between lobbyists or other interest groups at least once per week.

The committee’s “endeavors are going to be accompanied by incredible pressure, often from special-interest groups,” Renacci said in an interview. “I think it’s important that it’s an open process, that we make sure not only that America sees what they’re doing, but that we see what every individual Members’ views and thoughts are.”

Republican Sens. David Vitter (La.) and Dean Heller (Nev.) are backing a similar effort, co-sponsoring a bill that would require the 12 members of the committee to disclose all campaign contributions above $1,000 within 48 hours while serving on the committee.

Vitter and Heller also joined Republican freshman Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), John Boozman (Ark.) Ron Johnson (Wis.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mike Lee (Utah) in writing a letter to McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) asking that the proceedings of the committee be public.

Heller also paired with Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) to write a letter to each of the committee members to make public the committee’s proceedings.

Buchanan has said he will introduce legislation similar to the Vitter-Heller bill in the House.

Correction: Aug. 12, 2011

An earlier version of this story misstated the Member leading the group of liberal Senators in writing a letter to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell about putting jobs first. It was Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

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