In the first of what will be a closely watched selection process for a powerful new deficit panel, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he will appoint Democratic Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.), Max Baucus (Mont.) and John Kerry (Mass.) as his three choices for a super committee charged with finding more than $1 trillion in spending cuts by the end of this year.
Murray will serve as co-chair of the 12-member panel. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will select her co-chair and two other panelists, as required by the next debt limit agreement signed into law by President Barack Obama last week. Minority Leaders Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell will each select three additional members.
“The Joint Select Committee has been charged with forging the balanced, bipartisan approach to deficit reduction that the American people, the markets and rating agencies like Standard and Poor’s are demanding,” Reid said in a statement. “To achieve that goal, I have appointed three senators who each posses an expertise in budget matters, a commitment to a balanced approach and a track record of forging bipartisan consensus.”
Reid’s three picks are intended to show the Nevada Democrat is serious about forging a bipartisan deal to head off $1.2 trillion in spending cuts required under the debt deal. The super committee was Reid’s contribution to the bipartisan agreement to end the debt limit fight.
Murray is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and close to Reid and the rest of the Senate Democratic leadership. Baucus is the chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, while Kerry - the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee - has been lobbying for a spot.
Reid and Pelosi had been considering whether to install candidates who will draw a hard-line against deep entitlement cuts, particularly if Republicans don’t bend on new taxes. The Democratic leaders want loyalists who won’t give the panel majority support for a cuts-only approach, which could target popular programs like Medicare and Social Security.
“The number one criteria should be someone who fights for revenues and if Republicans continue to rule out revenues, then the Democrats have to play proper defense in response,” said a senior Democratic aide.
In an email sent to her colleagues Monday evening, Pelosi said her caucus was committed to “protecting” Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security - and said that the new panel should deliberate in public settings so that it achieves a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction.
“Many of you have expressed your interest in serving on the Joint Committee,” Pelosi told her colleagues. “I have and will be reaching out to each of you before making any decision.”
Leaders have until next week to announce their picks for the closely watched panel, although Reid’s opening move is expected to speed up that process.
The membership will be crucial, since any deal that receives a majority support will be fast-tracked through the House and Senate for consideration before year’s end.
All four party leaders face internal politics as they try to choose members who will both represent their caucus’ interests and try to show a level of seriousness amid a fiscal crisis that led Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the U.S. credit rating for the first time in history. And the appointees must be able to withstand withering criticism from their bases if they cut a compromise deal - or public outrage if they fail to reach an accord at a time of historic deficits.
Many Hill insiders believe vulnerable lawmakers won’t be appointed to the politically charged panel.
While most of McConnell’s GOP caucus is dead set against raising revenues, even by keeping income tax rates the same and eliminating preferences in the tax code, Reid has a much more diverse collection of colleagues, which made it more challenging for him to find members who will stay loyal to the party while also trying to cut an effective deal.
Reid also has to defend 23 Democratic-controlled Senate seats in 2012, versus only 10 for McConnell.
Democratic insiders said Reid came “under pressure” from several fronts - first, progressive and liberal members want at least one of their own named to the joint panel in order to ensure that their positions on spending and entitlement cuts are factored into any final recommendations.
“What I don’t like is revenues not being part of it, and I’m going to fight to make sure it’s included” in the super committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said last week.
By choosing Baucus, Reid may unnerve some liberals who have been skeptical of the Montana Democrat’s deal-making with Republicans over the years. But Baucus also has held the party line on raising revenues and attacking GOP budget plans to overhaul Medicare, a role he played in the budget talks with Vice President Joe Biden.
And by choosing Murray, the DSCC chief, Reid opens himself up to GOP criticism for choosing the Democratic senator whose foremost concern is 2012 Senate politics heading into a daunting election year.
“It is shocking that Harry Reid appointed his chief fundraiser to a committee that will be the central focus of every lobbyist in town,” said one Republican official.
Kerry, who has drawn fire from the right for calling S&P’s move a “tea party downgrade,” has been eager to add to his Senate resume a sweeping domestic achievement.
Noticeably absent from Reid’s choices are the three Democrats who served as part of the bipartisan Gang of Six who proposed a sweeping budget deal, which the majority leader never embraced.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Reid’s top deputy and Gang of Six member, signaled his interest in serving on the super committee. Reid’s No. 3, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, informed leadership he did not want a spot on the panel.
For McConnell, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is widely expected to get the nod, given his conservative credentials, ties to McConnell and his work in the Biden group.
But if Republicans stay united, they’d need one additional Democrat to break ranks and back a cuts-only approach - so McConnell may want to choose a senator with bipartisan appeal who is loyal to leadership, like either Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) or Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
At a townhall in Winchester, Ky. on Monday, McConnell told a crowd that he wanted “significant entitlement reform” to be part of the mix that the super committee proposes. Last week on Fox News, McConnell declared that tax increases were essentially off the table.
“What I can pretty certainly say to the American people, the chances of any kind of tax increase passing with this, with the appointees of John Boehner and I, are going to put in there are pretty low,” McConnell said.
Upping the rhetoric, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) issued a memo to his colleagues on Monday evening to blast the S&P’s suggestion that revenue raisers be part of the mix and to insist that higher taxes should not be part of the super committee’s solution.
“I believe this is what we must demand from the Joint Committee as it begins its work,” Cantor said to House Republicans.
Cantor is a possible choice for the committee - and Boehner may choose similar hard-nosed conservatives to throw a bone to tea party-backed lawmakers skeptical of his handling of the debt ceiling debate.
Pelosi has not yet indicated who she will pick, but Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, is a possible pick, according to Democratic sources. Other potential selections include Reps. James Clyburn (S.C.), the Assistant Democratic Leader, and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the top Latino in the Democratic Caucus.
If the super committee reaches an accord, its recommendations would be quickly sent to the House and Senate floors, forcing lawmakers to cast an up-or-down vote on whether to send the proposals to President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature or veto; if it fails, it could trigger an across-the-board series of cuts, including to defense programs that Pentagon officials say are vital to national security.
Many Republicans are eager to avoid deep defense cuts, providing an incentive for their party to win Democratic backing on the panel.
Scott Wong contributed to this report.