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House Members Still Trying to ‘Go Big’

New Coalition Will Focus on Bringing a $4 Trillion Deficit Reduction Plan to House, Senate Floors

A group of more than 150 legislators is taking up Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s challenge to scrap the “happy talk” on deficit reduction and produce a bill this year to cut more than $4 trillion from the deficit.

The Go Big Coalition aims to craft bill language based on the recommendations of the president’s 2010 deficit reduction commission and bring that measure to the floors of the House and Senate by this spring.

Reid said late last year that if the bipartisan “gang of six” Senators working on a deficit reduction plan had a proposal, “put it in bill form, in writing — not all these happy statements on what people think can be done.”

Rep. Mike Simpson, the key House Republican on the Go Big Coalition, said he heard the Nevada Democrat loud and clear.

“Harry Reid was right when he was kind of chewing out the gang of six and saying, ‘You know, give me something to look at. Give me a bill,’” the Idaho Republican said. “That’s the first challenge, is trying to get something that you can actually put in bill form.”

During the Congressional winter recess, staffers were tasked with starting to put into legislative language the ideas contained in the presidential commission’s roughly $4 trillion plan, known as Bowles-Simpson for its co-chairmen, Erskine Bowles, once chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).

Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), Mike Simpson’s Democratic counterpart, said the coalition has agreed on “some of the most important things to overcome,” including the ratio of revenue increases to spending reductions as well as the time frame in which the plan should be carried out.

Shuler declined, however, to reveal the particulars of those decisions until a bill is released. Staff is now hashing out bill specifics, the North Carolinian said, adding, “We’re meeting every day in some capacity with our staff.”

A bipartisan deficit reduction plan is a tall order for a group that knows failure all too well. The coalition was created late last year in an attempt to influence the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to embrace a plan including revenue raisers and budget cuts. The super committee failed to produce a bill by its Thanksgiving 2011 deadline.

Mike Simpson acknowledged that the group faces even more of a challenge absent the super committee’s mandate, which included guaranteed floor consideration of whatever plan it produced.

“The biggest advantage that the super committee had was that they were guaranteed to get something on the floor. Somehow we want to maintain that,” he said. “The question is, even if we come up with a codified Simpson-Bowles, can we get it on the floor?”

Adding to the complications is that the group likely has a three- or four-month timeline in which to do so before electioneering begins to suck all of the legislative air out of the room, Simpson said.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who is playing an influential role behind the scenes, said Tuesday that he is “hopeful that the Bowles-Simpson proposal will be given new life,” and he gave a hat tip to “those who are working on substantive legislative proposals to offer to the Congress.”

The Maryland Democrat took to the floor Wednesday to talk up that agenda and the campaign to “go big” on deficit reduction.

Stakeholders in the group underscore that it’s a diverse cross section of the House and includes Members of all political stripes, from the Congressional Black Caucus to the fiscally conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition to the conservative Republican Study Committee to the moderate GOP Tuesday Group and beyond.

Buy-in from leadership in both chambers will be crucial to bringing a deal to the floor, however. Rep. Michael Grimm, a member of the GOP whip team, said “there is some talk” with Republican leaders on how to move forward but that right now the coalition is focused on hashing out a $4 trillion deal.

“There is some leadership involved, but overall we really want to make this an effort of the Members and really, truly keep as much politics out of it as we can,” the New Yorker said.

Like other Members interviewed, Grimm conceded that electoral politics are another hurdle to the group’s mission. He pointed to broad bipartisan efforts to reform immigration during President George W. Bush’s administration and the Senate’s failed attempts at an energy overhaul as examples. He also acknowledged that the coalition could fold in a similarly dramatic fashion.

“We’re in Washington; there’s always going to be politics,” he said.

And that goes for both sides. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the CBC, noted that while Congressional Republicans may want to prevent any bipartisan wins for President Barack Obama to tout, “I admit, if things were reversed, we would not want to give the Republican president any victories either at this point in the game.”

On the Senate side, members of the gang of six held formal meetings right up until the end of 2011, and the group is aiming to introduce legislation this year. Just like House Members, a Senate GOP aide said the group is “looking at taking Bowles-Simpson and seeing what tweaks can be made to impact the score.”

The gang of six, which has now expanded to eight Senators, was criticized by Members of both parties last year for introducing its $3.7 trillion package too late to influence the debt limit debate. Staffers griped at the private nature of the talks, and neither Reid nor Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fully embraced its efforts. This time around, an aide to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said, things will be different.

“With the upcoming deadlines and the urgency of the challenge, Senator Warner intends to continue working with his colleagues in a bipartisan way to move beyond happy talk,” Kevin Hall said in a statement.

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