The hottest ticket in Washington: A seat on the ‘super committee’

WASHINGTON–It’s the hottest new club in Washington, even if the name isn’t very snazzy: the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

That’s the 12-member congressional panel created under the debt ceiling agreement that just passed Congress, hours before a possible U.S. default. It’s already been dubbed a “super committee,” and it will wield enormous power.

Under the debt deal, that select committee will be tasked with coming up with $1.5 trillion in debt-reduction measures by Nov. 23. Along with spending cuts, the panel can consider tax increases and entitlement reforms–the two most politically-charged issues in the current debate over fiscal restraint. And Congress must hold an up-or-down vote on the committee’s proposal, which would take only a simple majority to pass.

It’s the “great hope” of the debt agreement, said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.

For others, “great fear” might be a more apt description. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said she’s worried that committee will come up with a plan that will “put Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid in jeopardy.”

There’s no question that the composition of the committee will be critical to its success–or its failure. And already, some lawmakers are vying for a seat on it.

“I’d love to be on it,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District. “It’s obviously going to be the nexus of some very challenging decisions… It’s where the action is going to be in the coming months on fiscal issues.”

The four leaders of the House and Senate will each get to appoint three members, so there will be six Democrats and six Republicans. Himes said he plans to express his interest in a slot to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi soon, although he said his chances of getting picked are probably slim. No one else in the Connecticut delegation appeared to be openly lobbying for the assignment, but most weren’t ruling it out either.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” said DeLauro, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and is a close advisor to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“He would certainly serve if asked,” said Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Like Himes, Lieberman said he would love to get appointed. But he’s not bothering to throw his name in the hat.

“I would be honored to be on the special committee and truly shocked if I was asked,” he said. Why? “I would take positions that are not welcome by the base of either party,” he noted, “so I don’t expect to” to be a candidate.

That, in a nutshell, is a key dilemma now facing Pelosi and other leaders. They want the committee to succeed in coming up with a balanced deal that can pass Congress because of the severe fall-out if there’s stalemate. If the committee deadlocks or Congress fails to pass its recommendations, the newly-passed debt deal includes a trigger provision that will unleash automatic across-the-board spending cuts to discretionary programs, domestic and defense alike. Both parties desperately want to avoid that trigger.

At the same time, congressional leaders will also want to pick lawmakers who will fight for a deal that safeguards their party’s respective political and policy priorities. For Democrats, that means legislators who will go to the mat to oppose significant cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

“Whoever is at that table will be someone who will fight to protect those benefits,” Pelosi said Tuesday when asked how she will make her three appointments.

For Republicans, the bottom line is warding off tax increases. House Speaker John Boehner has not signaled who he will appoint, and his spokesman, Michael Steel, denied reports that the Ohio Republican has privately vowed to appoint only Republicans who will oppose any tax hikes.

“He has not said anything like that,” said Steel, “although he does not support tax hikes, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Republican in the House who does.”

Asked whether Boehner would be more inclined to appoint members who are prone to compromise or those who are prone to fight for Republican principles, Steel said: “I don’t see any contradiction between standing on principle and finding common ground.”

Lieberman said he hopes the leaders don’t choose people who are already dug in before the panel’s work even begins. “The interest groups in both parties will lobby the leaders… to put people on who will protect the status quo, but that’s exactly the opposite of what we need,” he said.

Given the hard lines already drawn in this debate, however, it’s no wonder than many lawmakers are skeptical the new committee will be able to break the tax-hike/entitlement-reform impasse. There have already been a host of other official commissions and informal groups that have tried, and failed, to get any traction with sweeping debt-reduction proposals.

There was President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission, which didn’t get the necessary votes to force congressional action. And the so-called Gang of Six plan, which got a warm reception in the Senate but quickly lost steam. And then, of course, there were the intense negotiations between President Obama and Boehner for a “grand bargain” that would have shaved as much as $4 trillion off the national debt over ten years.

“My fears are the committee will ultimately be most influenced by the same forces that stopped the president and the speaker when they seemed to be on the verge of the grand bargain,” said Lieberman. “This committee’s going to get aggressively lobbied.”

Himes agreed that committee would be a target of intense lobbying, from different factions inside Congress and from interest groups outside too.

“It will be a real pressure cooker,” he said. “Every three lines in the tax code and every subsidy will be vigorously defended by their beneficiaries. And then there will be ideological pressure from every angle of the Democratic Caucus and the Republican Conference.”

But, he said, the penalties of failing to reach an agreement are so harsh that leaders will want to choose members who can forge compromise. “Failure here means some pretty draconian” cuts to both defense and domestic programs, he noted.

To be sure, the trigger would force at least $1.2 trillion in cuts, with that hit split 50/50 between defense and domestic programs. “The committee will need to produce something that stands a reasonable chance of passage because the fall-back is awful. They will have to thread the needle” and find something that can pass both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House.

“Could it be doomed to failure?” Himes said. “Maybe, but it’s also a real opportunity.”