Two of the Senate's top budget hawks began a bipartisan bid Tuesday aimed at reining in a budget deficit that's expected to skyrocket because of spending on federal retirement programs.
The plan, by the Budget Committee's Democratic chairman and its top Republican, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, would create a study group to develop recommendations on how to tame the deficit. Both the House and Senate would have to approve the idea for the task force to come together, and its initial chances seemed mixed at best after the top Democrats in both the House and Senate responded coolly.
With the looming election year killing any chance for politically painful steps to reduce the deficit, the group wouldn't issue recommendations until after a new president is elected.
The poltics of politics
Under the plan, a 16-member study group made up equally of Republicans and Democrats would attempt to reach agreement on legislation to cut the deficit. If 12 panel members - including two Bush administration participants - can agree, the legislation would be submitted to Congress for a vote in early 2009.
The idea driving Conrad and Gregg's plan is that the politically excruciating steps required to improve the long-term budget picture can only be taken if there's bipartisan backing. That's what the composition of the task force would ensure, Conrad and Gregg said.
Neither political party is willing to take risky steps, such as curbing benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare, unless the opposing political party is willing to support the moves. Three-fifths of both the House and Senate would have to pass any task force recommendations, which would be guaranteed an up-or-down vote.
Concern and criticism
That fast-track approach earned a cold-water critique from the Senate's top Democrat.
"The Conrad-Gregg proposal raises some serious questions," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Most fundamentally, is it appropriate to entrust the future of health care, Social Security, our tax system, and perhaps even Iraq to a small group of individuals whose recommendations could be moved through Congress without meaningful public input or amendment?"
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a statement saying Congress' existing procedures are adequate to tackle the divisive deficit issue.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., praised Gregg and Conrad for trying to tackle the budget deficit, but he worries that their approach would lead to tax increases.
"There are better reforms out there that don't lead to tax increases," Ryan said.
"We don't believe this issue can be addressed without it being totally bipartisan," Gregg told reporters.
Driving the debate is the looming retirement of the baby boomer generation, which will drive unsustainable growth in Social Security and Medicare unless some combination of benefit cuts and tax increases is enacted.
"We cannot ignore the coming crisis and hope that future leaders will solve this problem," Conrad said. "The time for action is now."
The group would be chaired by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and the recommendations wouldn't be due until after next year's elections.