WASHINGTON – A group of senators is quietly attempting to do something almost unthinkable in Washington: craft a bipartisan solution to the nations growing deficit in an election year.
The group hasnt been given a name like the Gang of Six, and members might fail like others before them. That hasnt stopped them from joining forces when most lawmakers are in campaign mode.
They are looking at reviving a proposal by the leaders of President Obamas failed 2010 deficit-cutting commission to require Congress to act on a long-term plan, said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. The lawmakers want to offer a proposal during the lame-duck session of Congress after the Nov. 6 election.
The thing that has the greatest potential to succeed is (if), in the lame duck, a framework agreement is reached on a grand bargain to reduce deficits and debt by at least $4 trillion over 10 years, said Conrad, the Senate Budget Committee chairman and a member of the new group of eight senators.
The U.S. faces a fiscal cliff in January, when $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years will start and the George W. Bush-era tax cuts will expire, unless Congress strikes a deal on an alternative.
Democrats propose letting tax cuts expire for top earners, while Republicans want spending reductions instead of more tax revenue.
Under one alternative being considered by the group of senators, Congress would be given six months to overhaul U.S. tax law and entitlement programs such as Social Security. If lawmakers cant agree, the deficit panel leaders plan would be triggered, Conrad confirmed in an interview Wednesday.
We have automatic consequences that go into effect in place of the automatic spending cuts, Conrad said. Weve spent an enormous amount of time on other consequences for failure, he said.
Im all for that, I wanted Bowles-Simpson, said Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican participating in the Senate groups talks.
As a member of the presidents debt commission, Coburn voted in December 2010 for the proposal by Republican former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former President Bill Clintons White House chief of staff, Erskine Bowles.
Still, Coburn cited the Simpson-Bowles plans lack of a full overhaul of Medicare as a potential concern.
The approach of relying on Simpson-Bowles is a logical alternative to the crush of tax increases and spending cuts that could cripple the U.S. economy, said Bob Bixby, head of the Concord Coalition, a nonprofit group that pushes for a balanced budget.
It makes for a more rational cliff, he said. Letting the cliff go into effect is simply not good policy.
The Simpson-Bowles plan would:
Cut individual and corporate tax rates,
Curtail hundreds of tax deductions and credits,
Reduce Social Security benefits and Medicare,
Raise the gas tax, and
Cut federal discretionary spending.
It didnt win enough support among the debt commission members to be sent to Congress for a vote. Among the commission members who opposed the proposal was Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, now the Republican vice presidential nominee.
Theres no guarantee that the Senate groups idea would avoid the same fate as similar attempts by lawmakers and the White House over the past two years to strike a multitrillion-dollar budget-cutting bargain.
If one side continues to hold out hope that it can continue to do things its own way, then we wont have a deal, said Bill Galston, a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration.
Coburn said the nations debt problem is severe enough that inaction isnt an option. Still, nothing will happen until late this year, he said.
The real sickness of Washington is nobody wants to fix this until after the election so they can see the landscape, Coburn said.
Last week, one of the Republican Partys most ardent tax-cut advocates said if Obama is re-elected, theres not much point in delaying a compromise on taxes.
You cant get a deal with Obama without raising taxes on the producing class of folks, said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a leader of the limited-spending tea party movement.
We might as well cut a deal, he said. If Republicans want to maintain the defense, were going to have to give tax increases to Obama.
There is no similar attempt to craft a bipartisan plan in the Republican-controlled House. Last week, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said he was not confident at all that Congress can avoid the automatic spending cuts. Many lawmakers are skeptical that Congress can accomplish much this year beyond buying time to work out their differences.
Moodys Investors Service said in a Sept. 11 report that it will downgrade the U.S. next year if Congress doesnt come up with a way to stabilize the growing debt. Should the U.S. go over the fiscal cliff, the New York-based rating firm said it would wait to see whether the economy could rebound from the shock before giving the nation a stable outlook.