As party leaders have begun to select their representatives to the so-called super committee, there is a faint glimmer of hope that the special commission charged with finding $1.5 trillion in debt reduction may actually be able to find compromise. But, as always in Washington, gridlock still looks like the most likely outcome.
Three out of the four Congressional leaders have announced their picks to the 12-member panel, which was established by the legislation to raise the debt ceiling, and is supposed to release a debt reduction plan by November 23. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was appointing Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Patty Murray of Washington, and John Kerry of Massachusetts. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, announced that his appointees were Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. On the House side, Speaker John Boehner will be appointing Dave Camp and Fred Upton, both of Michigan, and Jeb Hensarling of Texas. If seven members of the committee sign off on a plan, it will be voted up or down in both chambers of Congress by December 23. If the committee gridlocks, or if its plan is rejected by Congress or the White House, the debt ceiling law will automatically implement $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts to national security, and domestic spending, excluding Medicaid and Social Security.
Heading into such a high-stakes confrontation, the parties needed appointees who are unlikely to buck their leadership, but also knowledgeable about taxes, healthcare, defense, and the budget. The chances that either party would pick an iconoclast like Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn were slim to none. But seeking a balance between loyalty and expertise, the parties have picked members who at least know the road to common ground, even if they might not take it.
The stickiest issue remains taxes. While many of the Republican and Democratic members of committee have advocated reforming America's loophole-riddled tax systems, they have different ways of looking at the issue. While Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has long called for corporate tax reform as a way to raise new tax revenue, Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has opposed increasing revenue through tax reform. "Tax reform cannot and should not be confused with increasing taxes," Camp said during a June 2 hearing. "It must be done in a revenue-neutral manner."
Portman was the author of the Senate GOP's economic plan, and has also been a strong advocate of revenue-neutral tax reform. But he also praised the plan released by the so-called Gang of Six senators, which called for nearly a trillion in new revenue from income and corporate taxes. "We've signed up to the concept that we do need a bipartisan approach here, and it's got to deal with tax reform, and it's got to deal with the long-term problem—which is sustainability of these entitlement programs," Portman told ABC News in July. And while Kyl, the second-ranked Senate Republican, has held the party line on taxes, he also suggested other ways to raise new revenue for the government, such as increasing federal user fees and selling some government assets. Kyl also walked out on negotiations with the White House over the debt ceiling, but because he has little to lose--he'll be retiring in 2012—some have speculated that he might be willing to deal.
Toomey, who like Portman was elected to the Senate last year, is seen as a Republican hard-liner on most issues. But, like Kyl, Toomey voted to repeal ethanol tax credits, defying some anti-tax activists. Toomey is also the former president of the antitax group the Club for Growth, which has occasionally sparred with Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform over whether tax breaks for certain industries should be considered taxes, or a type of spending. Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has a reputation as a moderate House Republican, although Hensarling, the House Republican Conference chairman, is known as a strong, solid conservative voice for the party.