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Turf Wars Brewing Over Deficit Panel

With a Friday deadline to submit formal recommendations to the super committee looming, top lawmakers on other standing Congressional panels are lobbying to protect their legislative turf.

Both publicly and privately, committee chairmen and ranking members have been approaching their colleagues on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, offering general suggestions to help the panel reach its $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion deficit reduction goal. But they are also trying to steer the super committee away from slashing the budgets of agencies under the purview of their panels.

Aides close to the super committee insist that the formal submissions and recommendations from some of the Hill’s most seasoned lawmakers will be duly considered. But to date, the panel has been highly cut off from the rest of the Capitol community — left largely untouched by leadership and meeting mostly behind closed doors to conduct negotiations that few are talking about.

Members of the super committee have been tight-lipped with even their close colleagues. For instance, House Republicans said that while Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (Mich.) and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (Mich.) have talked with members of their respective committees, neither has provided details of the deficit panel’s deliberations.

Moreover, the submission process has been ill-defined, according to some lawmakers, which could make the playing field for influence uneven and advantage the committees that have been more organized to date — or those who have lawmakers on the joint panel.

“I’m hearing that some committees are worried about their jurisdiction, or in other words, their turf,” said Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “I’m not sure exactly how that would be impacted. You could have people worried that their committee — a decision might get made that would impact their committee, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Members are pushing.”

That’s exactly what House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) is doing. During Monday evening votes last week, McKeon stood over a seated Speaker John Boehner on the House floor, pointing his finger at the Ohio Republican’s face in a manner resembling iconic photographs of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In an interview, McKeon said he was “setting the stage” for a Wednesday meeting with Boehner about the importance of protecting the Defense Department from automatic spending cuts that will take place if the super committee fails to reach an agreement or Congress fails to pass the deal it produces. National security spending is set to shoulder half the spending cuts that would result from failure to enact a broader deal.

“I can’t do anything to help ’em make a deal. They have to do that themselves. But I’m doing all I can to make sure everybody understands the consequences of if they do not follow through,” McKeon said.

The California Republican was busy last week. On Monday, he brought former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to speak to Members. On Tuesday, he met with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). He also recently garnered support from a key member of the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who “does not want to be the secretary when the military is hollowed out,” McKeon said.

He envisioned a super committee scenario in which “those who don’t worry so much about defense” pitch a deal to “split the difference” — halving the defense cuts from the automatic sequestration to
$250 billion while conceding ground on entitlement programs. “That is catastrophic, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

In the Senate, Members have been trying to meet this Friday’s deadline for submissions. Sessions has been working extensively with his Democratic counterpart, Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.), to put together the Budget Committee’s proposals. The two men met last Wednesday, followed by a Democrats-only meeting with Conrad later that afternoon and a full committee meeting Thursday to discuss their letter to the super committee.

While Conrad has called his work with Sessions “productive” and hopes to produce a letter that has near-consensus from his full committee, the Budget chairman also met privately with members of the super committee Tuesday to discuss the work of other budget groups, including the president’s fiscal commission and the “gang of six.”

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is one of the many lawmakers who has already sent a formal letter to the super committee, posting the recommendations she made with ranking member James Inhofe (Okla.) to the panel’s website.

When asked whether she was also advocating for her committee’s idea privately, she indicated that she has regular access to lawmakers on the super committee. “Well, these are all my colleagues. I talk to them every day about it,” Boxer said.

But not every policymaker believes that the cacophony of ideas is productive for the already heavily burdened panel.

“Every committee is trying to get them to pay attention to them. I think they have too much information now,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who also has been speaking to members on the super committee. “You know, they’re going to have trouble focusing on doing what they have to do in the time they have.”

Other Members expressed frustration that there has been no clear outline of what kind of input super committee members are seeking. Many of the submissions that already have been made include broad ideas about deficit reduction and are not specific to that particular committee’s jurisdiction.

The lack of clarity in purpose has led some top committee lawmakers to take a pass on the recommendations process altogether. “The process is … not that crisp,” Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller  (D-W. Va.) told Roll Call.

“We don’t have any huge compulsion, nor do we have any instructions at this point, nor do we have any time to go to them and say, ‘These are the things we think you should cut from our jurisdiction,’” Rockefeller added about the thought process he went through with his ranking member, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

Despite pressure from committee chairmen and others, House GOP leaders are, for now, taking a hands-off approach to the proceedings of the super committee. Unlike in previous efforts to find a negotiated settlement to debt and spending issues this year, GOP leadership aides said Boehner and Cantor have told Members that they will “provide any support or assistance” they need, but Boehner has made clear that, for the time being, it is up to the Members to find a deal.

Speaking at the annual Ideas Forum in Washington, D.C., last week, Boehner reiterated that he is “firmly committed to ensuring that the so-called super committee come to an outcome and a successful outcome. … I made it clear to the Republican members of the super committee that I expect there will be an outcome, that there has to be an outcome.”

But Boehner refused to set limits for the committee. When asked whether the deal could include tax reform, he said, “I’m not gonna predict what they will or won’t do but there has to be an outcome.”

Jonathan Strong contributed to this report.

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