As the lame-duck session began this week — with an unexpected diversion in the form of a filibuster-reform debate on the Senate floor — one Republican procedural gripe seemed truer than ever: The real legislating in this Congress occurs only at the leadership level. And deficit-reduction talks are the latest illustration. Committees, chairmen, once-crucial moderates, “gangs,” voting blocs, and the entire House Democratic Caucus will have little influence on the negotiations.
The divided Congress set the dynamic for the cliff talks. In the 111th Congress, when Democrats ran the House and Senate, the search for 60 Senate votes drove the fate of measures such as the health care overhaul and the stimulus plan. Now New England Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, whose votes were ardently sought back then, have no particular leverage. Congress will not be waiting on Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to avert the cliff. Today, top aides negotiating with the White House — such as Mike Sommers, chief of staff for House Speaker John Boehner, and David Krone, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — wield more power than even most senior lawmakers.
There are a few exceptions: Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. Their panels won’t mark up a bill, but they can influence policy details because they will probably be asked to draft a tax agreement, and those committees have the expertise to weigh in on what is feasible. A senior Finance Committee aide, for example, told lobbyists this week that a proposal to cap tax deductions for the wealthy would have to be vetted by the panel to determine if it can work.
The House is President Obama’s biggest obstacle to a deficit deal, making Boehner the key GOP negotiator. Because Senate Republicans are sure to accept any deal that House Republicans pass, they matter less. House Democrats might matter if so many Republicans oppose a compromise that Boehner needs Democratic votes, but the remote odds that they would scuttle a deal backed by Obama limits their leverage. Reid, who has long fretted that the White House will give on entitlements without adequate recompense, is working to align his members to oppose any agreement that includes immediate entitlement cuts.
This week’s talks focused on a two-part deal. In the first phase, before the year-end fiscal cliff, Congress would allow the federal government to borrow more while beginning to pay down the debt by increasing tax revenue. It would also approve spending cuts to appease the GOP. After averting the cliff, relevant committees would then draw up tax- and entitlement-reform plans or face mandatory cuts if they fail, according to congressional aides in both chambers. The aides said that talks between the White House and Boehner’s staff stalled this week as both sides urged the other to make an initial proposal regarding spending cuts. Boehner said on Thursday that “no substantive progress has been made.”
The secrecy of those talks has given common cause to political opponents. The Senate Budget Committee’s top Republican, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, derided “a group of people meeting in secret” who will likely write a bill without his or most his colleagues’ input. “We’ll be told it has to pass before the deadline, or we’ll have a crisis,” Sessions complained in a TV interview. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who opposes entitlement cuts, said that leadership should not give the rank and file “a fait accompli.” Sanders told National Journal he has sought assurances, so far without success, from the White House on entitlements.
How effectively Senate progressives can band together could affect negotiations, Senate leadership aides say. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin spoke for many in his caucus when he said in a speech that dealmakers should leave entitlements alone for now. (He conceded that changes to Medicare and Medicaid should be considered as part of a long-term solution.) Durbin is also a member of the “Gang of Eight,” which has spent nearly two years trying to draft a far-reaching deficit-reduction agreement. The group has not met recently and will probably not factor into the current talks. “It’s a long shot now,” Durbin says of chances that the gang will produce any proposal this year.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., by contrast, has drafted a bill. Earlier this month, he said it was the “wrong time” to promote his plan to reduce the deficit in one swoop, rather than going at it piecemeal. But as negotiators tried to avoid the immediate deal he supports, Corker changed course. He used a Washington Post op-ed to tout his plan, which he released on Tuesday. Still, Corker said his goal remains helping Boehner and Obama reach a deal. “They are the negotiators, not me,” Corker said. Which makes him and his colleagues, yet again, bystanders.
This article appeared in print as “Again, From the Top.”
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