Sen. John Kerry’s appointment to the debt-reduction supercommittee is his big moment to shine as a dealmaker and silence critics who have questioned his modest record of legislative accomplishments.
Kerry’s big opportunity, however, is troubling to some liberal leaders and labor union officials who worry that the senior Democrat from Massachusetts might be too eager to strike a grand bargain.
The most significant legislative victory of Kerry’s career came last year when he shepherded the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty through the Senate despite the strong opposition of GOP leaders.
But a bipartisan deal to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion or more, which is the task of the 12-member supercommittee established last week, would be an accomplishment on a much higher order of significance.
“Kerry’s got a bipartisan track record on issues big and small including building consensus on issues that had defied all consensus,” said Jodi Seth, Kerry’s spokeswoman.
“From working with [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] to bridge differences on Vietnam, to ratifying the New START Treaty last year when it was supposedly doomed, Sen. Kerry has been reaching across the aisle and forging tough compromises throughout his entire career,” she added. “He knows how to get things done.”
He is one of six senators on the panel. The others are Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
Colleagues and Senate aides see Kerry as eager to be part of a significant legislative achievement and that concerns liberal groups and labor unions. They fear the supercommittee may cut entitlement programs.
Kerry inflamed those anxieties over the weekend during an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Kerry spoke favorably of a grand bargain that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had tried to reach, noting it would have included “a mix of reductions and, and reforms in Social Security."
Kerry alarmed liberals by repeating the standard argument of Washington’s deficit hawks.
“The real problem for our country is not the short-term debt. We can deal with that. It's the long-term debt. It's the structural debt of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid measured against the demographics of our nation,” Kerry said.
Some liberals were not pleased by Kerry’s selection.
“Like President Obama, Kerry is fatally attracted to the notion of a grand bargain, sacrificing cuts in Medicare and Social Security in exchange for increased revenues to reduce long term deficits. And he is simply wrong-headed about what the nation must do in order to get the economy on track,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive advocacy group.
Alan Charney, policy and strategy director of USAction, said Kerry’s selection raised eyebrows among liberal groups.
“Kerry is a little bit of a surprise to many of us. He hasn’t really been a central player in taxes and revenues,” he said.
Charney said Democratic lawmakers representing the liberal position on the supercommittee cannot agree to cut entitlement programs.
“My bottom line, if Sen. Kerry’s position on this new committee is such that he is for entitlement cuts then he can’t be someone who represents the progressive liberal viewpoint on this committee,” he said. “It seems he’s open to cuts in entitlements. If that’s the case he’s going against the cardinal liberal principle in this debate of no cuts to entitlements.
Kerry’s spokeswoman defended her boss from the criticisms.
“Senator Kerry’s record speaks for itself and groups on both sides would do well to keep their comments to themselves,” Seth said.
Kerry reached his height of political fame when he won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 and narrowly lost the presidency to George W. Bush by 119,000 votes in Ohio.
Bush officials criticized him during the campaign for having few legislative accomplishments. Seven years ago, Kerry was more known for congressional oversight activities than passing laws. One of his biggest legislative achievements was a law to protect marine mammals from commercial fishing.
He made a name for himself soon after winning election to the Senate by heading a fact-finding mission to Nicaragua in the mid 1980s that ultimately led to the Senate’s Iran-Contra hearings.
In the early 1990s, he and McCain made frequent trips to Vietnam to pursue rumors that American P.O.W.’s were still in captivity years after the war. Kerry and McCain disproved the rumors and advocated for normalized relations with the country, something former President Bill Clinton finally approved on July 11, 1995.
Since losing to Bush in 2004, Kerry has focused more on the art of compromise and passing major legislation.
The biggest example of this is the comprehensive climate change bill he negotiated with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Colleagues considered it a valiant effort but the bill never came close to passing.
Labor unions are still leery of Kerry because of the role he played in helping to pass the 2010 healthcare reform law.
Kerry’s major contribution then was to propose an excise tax on costly healthcare plans as a mechanism for raising revenue and curbing the long-term cost of healthcare.
His proposal helped persuade Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and other centrist Democrats to support the bill but labor unions and their allies in the House Democratic caucus hated it.
Kerry has defied liberal orthodoxy several other times in his long career.
He voted for the welfare reform bill in 1996, which many liberals hated. He also has a record of supporting free-trade pacts, including the North America Free Trade Agreement, which labor unions and many liberals staunchly opposed and now consider a failure.