Senate nixes proposal to create influential deficit commission

Despite growing public anger about the burgeoning federal deficit, the Senate today rejected a proposal to establish a commission to devise ways to cut spending and raise taxes -- and to give the panel teeth by essentially forcing Congress to consider its recommendations.

The bipartisan amendment would have required Congress to vote on the deficit commission’s recommendations -- up or down, without change -- in an effort to prevent lawmakers from sidestepping politically difficult choices and cherry-picking easier but less effective measures.

The vote came just hours after the Congressional Budget Office issued a report predicting that the 2010 budget deficit will come in at $1.35 trillion -- a slight improvement from $1.4 trillion in 2009 -- even as political pressure to rein in spending intensified.

It also came a day after the White House said it would try to put the brake on deficits by imposing a three-year freeze on discretionary, non-defense spending. But critics derided that idea as a fig leaf, because the freeze would apply only to a small portion of the federal budget.

“Is there any doubt that we are on a collision course with economic reality?” said Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), sponsor of the deficit commission proposal. “There is no question that doing things the same old way that has led to this crisis is unlikely to lead to a different result.”

The Senate vote was 53-42 -- seven short of the 60 votes needed to approve the amendment. It was an unusual display of bipartisanship: Voting for the amendment were 37 Democrats and 16 Republicans.

But members of both parties also opposed the amendment, fearing they would not like the tax and spending ideas that would be thrust upon them, requiring them to accept all or nothing. Critics argued that the commission would strip Congress of power to shape policy -- and of responsibility for cutting the deficit -- by denying Congress the right to make changes in the recommendations.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) opposed the amendment, saying it would reduce senators to bureaucrats by stripping them of responsibility to decide how to reduce the deficit.

“Bureaucrats do not enact great legislation -- senators do,” Baucus said. “Let us not shirk our responsibility.”

President Obama has supported the idea, and said that if it fails, he will establish a similar commission by executive order. Critics say that approach will be toothless because Congress would not be required to vote on its recommendations.