Congressional deficit committee faces a rough road

Hours after Congress and the White House agreed that a yet-unformed “super committee” from the House and Senate should decide how to slash the deficit in coming months, a Washington parlor game began: Who will the 12 “super members” be?

Speculation ran rampant on Capitol Hill, although congressional leaders, weary from the bruising debt ceiling battle, kept quiet about whom they might tap. Instead, they gamely offered up the necessary qualifications for the potential candidates. Each one must be “serious,” “open-minded,” “principled” and, perhaps, a “glutton for punishment.”

Given the partisan acrimony dominating Congress, and the start of a presidential campaign that will center on the nation’s economic woes, few raised their hands in the wake of this week’s debt ceiling agreement for what most predict will be a thankless job. With six Democrats and six Republicans, the committee is widely thought to be destined to deadlock on key issues, and thus guaranteed to deliver frustration, criticism, high pressure and long meetings.


Some of the most prominent prospects quickly appeared to be running in the other direction.

“I treasure my August with my family,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, the retiring Arizona Republican and Senate minority whip, adding that he could come up with “lots of reasons” why he wouldn’t want to serve. “I’m not that much of a glutton for punishment. My bladder isn’t that strong. This is going to take an odd kind of person to serve on the committee.”

Still, that odd person could end up with considerable power — at least briefly.

Creation of the committee was mandated by the debt ceiling measure signed into law Tuesday by President Obama. The panel could recommend significant cuts to almost any part of the federal budget and also could propose changes to the tax code. And if its members agree on a plan, both houses of Congress would be required to give it an up or down vote — no amendments — giving the committee’s choices huge import.

Facing that prospect, lobbying shops on Washington’s K Street are scrambling to target what they’ve dubbed “The Dirty Dozen” before they’ve even been drafted for duty.

“Once the 12 super committee members are named, it is going to instantly create a new breed of super lobbyists,” said David DiMartino, a Washington media and political consultant and a Capitol Hill veteran.

The Republican members, three from each chamber, will be chosen by House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Their Democratic counterparts, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, respectively, also have three selections each. The leaders have two weeks to make their picks, and the committee has until Nov. 23, just before the Thanksgiving recess, to do its work.

Many in Washington believe the deficit committee will take its place in history as yet another in a long line of budget-cutting failures.

“I was not a fan of creating a new committee. I believe that we already had a sufficient number of commissions and committees — that the issues are pretty well-defined,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

But Collins, who is known for working with Democrats, isn’t exactly at the top of the short list. On the heels of a bitter battle in which both sides fought to defend their top priorities — entitlement spending for Democrats versus no tax increases for Republicans — it seems unlikely that either side will appoint a member prone to compromise.

“It’s going to be junkyard types,” said budget expert Stan Collender. “Negotiators whose basic word is, ‘No.’ ”

Although they’ve been tight-lipped, leaders have shown little sign of stepping back from their positions. Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week that House Democrats would go into the committee recognizing “that you can’t accomplish what you set out to do without considering revenues in a very strong way.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has repeated his assertion that “the House is not going to support an increase in taxes.”

Committee members risk political blow-back from deadlock. So it is widely expected that none of the Senate members will be people facing reelection in 2012 and that the House picks will hail from safe seats.

Expertise on budget issues could make House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and his Democratic counterpart, ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), favored contenders.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget and a Republican not up for reelection until 2016, is also a running favorite.

Perhaps the most important credential is loyalty to party leadership. The committee is essentially usurping the roles of the most powerful committees in Congress.

“They’ll want people who understand they’re not free agents,” Collender said.

That could rule out lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a conservative who recently joined Democrats on the Gang of Six proposal for deficit reduction. It might not bode well for “tea party” champions, such as Sen. Rand Paul, a freshman from Kentucky.

Leaders won’t be the only ones meddling in the committee. Washington lobbyists predict the committee will inaugurate one of the most intense periods of influence peddling in the city’s history.

Already, major trade associations and lobbying firms have begun putting together strategic plans.

“The power of the entire Congress is being placed in the hand of just 12 members,” DiMartino said. “You are going to see [campaign contribution] checks and requests for meetings flying furiously.”

One lobbyist, Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Assn. of Wholesaler-Distributors, said the stakes are as big as he has ever seen them, particularly for healthcare and defense sectors that could face automatic cuts in spending if a deal is not reached.

“The committee members are going to be under constant, 360-degree pressure” from interest groups, Van Dongen said. Already he has begun to revitalize the Tax Relief Coalition, which boasts more than 1,000 corporate members and seeks to coordinate business lobbying on tax reform.

And so Washington will wait while congressional leaders try to persuade their ranks to take one for the team. It remains a formidable task, as Sen. John Thune, a rising Republican star from South Dakota, demonstrated this week with a blunt declaration.

How much do you not want to be on the committee?

“A sufficient amount,” he said.

Staff writers Melanie Mason and Kim Geiger in Washington contributed to this report.