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Skepticism reigns, but debt panel feels pressure for a deal


WASHINGTON » There is a joke in this town that goes something like this: If you want to guarantee that a problem does not get solved, convene a committee to study it.

On the heels of a nasty showdown that led the nation to near default, a joint congressional committee is preparing to try to devise a deficit-reduction plan that both parties can live with — a goal that has eluded congressional leaders, a cadre of senators and the president of the United States.

The difficulty that this new committee will have scaling the steep walls of ideology and partisan mistrust are lost on few, including its own members.

"I approach this task like all tasks in Washington, with high hopes and tempered expectations," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and co-chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, whose six Senate members and six House members are divided evenly by party. "This committee has very serious work to do, but it should not be confused with Captain America or any other superhero."

The impediments to the committee’s work lie as much in the way its success markers are defined as in the inherent partisan rancor — and substantial financial conflicts — among its members.

Under the legislation written to raise the debt ceiling this month, if the committee fails to come up with a plan by Nov. 23 to cut the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years or if its proposals are not approved by Congress roughly a month later, the government will automatically cut spending across a vast area of its operations, including the Pentagon.

But the cuts would not be made until January 2013, nearly a year after the trigger is hit, leaving members of Congress to devise ways to avoid the fallout, even as they wrestle during the middle of a presidential campaign with a main component of the deficit debate: the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of 2012.

"The trigger can get pulled," said Josh Barro, a senior fellow and federal fiscal expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research organization. "But then there is a substantial amount of time to unpull the trigger. When you look at the committee picks, it is really hard-core partisan people who are not likely to compromise, and some would prefer the trigger rather than the fight over the campaign season to come up with a plan."

Privately, Republicans and Democrats are pondering which party would be more hurt by across-the-board cuts.

The committee members say there has been a political shift since the Obama administration and Congress failed to come up with a more sweeping plan to deal with the nation’s debt, lending more urgency to their work. After the debt ceiling was lifted, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the nation’s credit, the stock market took a wild dip and polls demonstrated that voters have lost patience with Washington in-fighting.

"There is just a lot more pressure now to accomplish something," said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, a Republican on the committee. "The dynamics are just different this time around."

Having the debt ceiling issue resolved also helps. "I think that since the economic nuclear bomb has been taken off the table," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a Democratic committee member, "people can focus on this in a little fresh way."

But many impediments remain. None of the Republicans on the committee have indicated that there is much wiggle room on the revenue side of the ledger, beyond a willingness to end tax subsidies for some industries, like ethanol. For their part, the Democrats chosen for the panel are largely protective of the entitlement programs that represent the biggest part of the federal budget.

"I don’t think this committee is going to achieve a full fix to our problems, because Democrats have never wanted to put their health care bill on the table," Rep. Paul D. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who leads the House Budget Committee and studiously avoided assignment to the new panel, said in a recent interview on "Fox News Sunday."

The central area of agreement between the two parties — a need for major changes to the tax code — is unlikely in the short time before the committee’s deadline.

Separate from the internal dynamics of the committee, each of the dozen members has favorite causes or industry allies, which could influence their opinions on cutting spending or raising revenue.

Further, it is clear that there is some residual unpleasantness after the bitter debt ceiling fight. "Some of the members I know, some I don’t," Hensarling said. "But I think I will keep my opinions of them to myself."

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a Democratic member, has long promoted the interests of Boeing, one of the largest military contractors, taking in more than $172,000 in donations from the company or its executives during her career. Murray once ran a television advertisement boasting about how she helped Boeing win a $40 billion Air Force contract for its aerial-refueling tankers.

Hensarling, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, has pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars from banks and Wall Street firms, including $57,800 in the last election cycle from Goldman Sachs.

Further, special interest groups are waiting in the wings. "The sense around here is a lobbying bonanza," said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, the influential Republican advocacy group formed by Karl Rove.

Watching with particular interest are groups that defend entitlement programs. "We’ve had all these different gangs all looking basically at these same issues," David Certner, the legislative policy director for AARP, which is pushing to protect Medicare, Social Security and other programs affecting older Americans. "We’re just going to keep doing the things we’ve been doing — the same lobbying, the same strategy, the same message."

All six Republicans on the committee have signed the pledge not to raise taxes dictated by Grover Norquist, a leading conservative who heads Americans for Tax Reform. Now, Norquist said, he will focus on keeping the Democrats in line. "The Republicans are serious budget reformers; the lady from Washington," Norquist said of Murray, "doesn’t do budgets."

It is these kinds of statements that worry proponents of a deficit overhaul. "If these guys can’t get it done," said Alan Simpson, the co-chairman of President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, "and are in thrall to the AARP and Grover Norquist, we ain’t got a prayer."

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