Tensions Flare on Deficit Panel

Posted October 25, 2011 at 5:18pm

Updated: 7:34 p.m.

On the eve of the super committee’s first public hearing in more than a month, a three-hour, closed-door meeting Tuesday got especially heated as Democrats presented their suggestions for a deficit reduction agreement.

According to multiple sources, a Democratic Member was presenting a potential plan — which one source indicated would achieve the committee’s desired budget savings by having tax increases nearly equal spending cuts — when Republicans, including Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.), became sharply critical. These sources disputed whether the tough talk from the GOP Members came in the form of questions or statement of opinions, but Members had been asked to pose only clarifying questions in order to avoid partisan displays.

Publicly, Republican leaders have vehemently opposed including any revenue raisers in a deal to reach the committee’s goal of reducing the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years, while Democratic leaders have refused to agree to entitlement cuts unless taxes are also on the table. Tuesday’s Democratic proposal represented the position of several committee members but not all Democrats on the panel.

When discussions grew in intensity, Co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) tried to rein in his colleagues and soften the debate. Shortly after the presentation and pushback from GOP lawmakers, staffers were asked to leave the room. The incident occurred in the first of two closed-door meetings Tuesday.

Sources indicated that many meetings of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction have been divided into Members-only and staff-inclusive segments, so aides being asked to exit the conference room in the Capitol Visitor Center is not especially noteworthy.

Sources said that the kind of tough exchange described Tuesday is not unusual for the secretive negotiating sessions. But with less than a month until the super committee’s deadline, the fact that accounts of its flare-ups are leaking may not bode well for finding an agreement.

Leaving the meeting room Tuesday, Members again declined to outline the nature of their discussions, but some were noticeably tense as they rushed to the exits.

Aides tried to put a positive spin on the recent disagreements among committee members, saying that unearthing ideas that won’t build consensus is part of a constructive process of elimination. The panel has been reviewing and cherry-picking provisions from existing proposals, such as ones negotiated by a group led by Vice President Joseph Biden as well as the president’s deficit commission. Finding out what might work is just as valuable as what won’t, sources indicated.

And that’s a premise even Members are willing to go on record as supporting.

“I think the important thing is trying to agree on policies, and then you can figure out the rest,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf is slated Wednesday to make his second appearance at a super committee hearing. He will be discussing discretionary spending.

Last time he came to the Hill to talk to the powerful panel, the CBO director indicated it would take the nonpartisan budget office “at least a few weeks” to issue cost estimates for any proposal that would significantly affect entitlements such as Medicare — another one of the major sticking points facing the negotiating group.

Given that the super committee faces a Nov. 23 deadline and that it must have some sort of CBO estimate 48 hours before a final vote, some have suggested that the panel would have to start submitting proposals beginning next week.

“With all respect, your decisions really need to be mostly made by the beginning of November if you want to have real legislation and a cost estimate from CBO to go with that before you get to Thanksgiving,” Elmendorf told super committee members at a September hearing.

When aides not affiliated with the super committee were pressed on whether CBO scores significantly affect the panel’s time frame, many suggested that because so many other plans have been drafted and floated by the budget office, it’s entirely possible that the super committee could base the scoring of its agreement on existing estimates, a scenario that could buy it some time.

Despite Members repeating to the media that the group is “making progress,” it’s unclear just how much has been made. Members already have decided to forego their chamber recesses in an attempt to wade through policy options. And leadership sources insist their bosses aren’t yet trying to force the panel’s hand toward any specific deal.

At a pen-and-pad with reporters Tuesday, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) continued to emphasize that House Democrats would like to see the super committee “go big” and insisted that no deal would be possible without embracing some sort of agreement on taxes.

“You can’t get there from here without revenues,” Hoyer said. “I think there’s more significant agreement on that proposition than you might think.”

He also floated an idea that the panel could lay out a two-pronged approach to tax code reform, instructing the germane committees to tackle the serious and time-consuming issue within their own jurisdictions. That approach has not been dismissed by sources close to the deficit panel.

One of the realities that makes it a viable option logistically and politically is that the two chief tax-writing chairmen in each chamber, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), sit on the super committee and have worked together on tax issues in the past.

Late Tuesday evening, Hensarling and Co-Chairman Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) also announced that the panel’s next public hearing will occur Nov. 1. It will include a review of previous deficit reduction proposals and feature a slate of witnesses who have produced plans, from former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) to former Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Alice Rivlin and former Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).

Jonathan Strong contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note:

This article was updated from the print version to include details on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction’s next public hearing.