WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Tuesday he's naming Sen. Patty Murray to co-chair a powerful "super committee" charged with finding more than $1 trillion in deficit cuts this fall.
Murray will be joined by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., on the panel, which was established last week by hard-fought legislation to increase the national debt.
Murray, who is chairwoman of the committee to elect Democratic senators, is a longtime protector of Democratic priorities such as Medicare, Social Security and veterans' benefits, as are Kerry and Baucus.
Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement that Murray has "a depth of knowledge on budget issues and demonstrated her ability to work across party lines."
In naming the trio, Reid opted against picking Democrats like Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota or Dick Durbin of Illinois, who backed curbs on Medicare spending and Social Security benefits as members of President Barack Obama's deficit commission. Baucus also served on the commission but voted against the controversial recommendations put forward by its co-chairs, citing cuts to farm subsidies and a proposed increase in the gasoline tax.
"More significant to me is who (Reid) didn't pick," said Keith Hennessey, a longtime former Senate GOP aide, citing Reid's snub of Conrad, who's also part of a bipartisan Senate "Gang of Six" on the budget. "He didn't pick someone who might have been bipartisan." Hennessey is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Baucus is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxes, Social Security and Medicare. Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president in 2004.
Reid is the first of four congressional leaders to make his picks to the panel. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will also name three members of the 12-member panel, which will be evenly divided between the two parties. They face an Aug. 16 deadline to name committee members.
The committee is charged with coming up with $1.5 trillion or more in budget savings over the coming decade, enough to match increases in the government's ability to borrow enough money to pay its bills through the beginning of 2013.
It would take a bipartisan majority of at least seven of the committee's 12 members to recommend legislation for guaranteed yes or no votes before Christmas. The panel has until the day before Thanksgiving to complete its deliberations.
The committee is sure to have a good element of partisanship, but there are powerful incentives for its members to reach agreement. Perhaps most important, if it fails to produce deficit savings of at least $1.2 trillion, or if the House or Senate votes down its recommendations, severe across-the-board spending cuts would be initiated automatically, hitting large swaths of the federal budget starting in 2013, including priorities dear to both parties. They include Medicaid, farm subsidies and the defense budget.
In addition, the recent downgrade on U.S. debt by the Standard & Poor's rating agency adds additional pressure. Stalemate within the committee could risk additional downgrades or roil financial markets.
Public opinion polls showed that voters were disgusted with Washington's wrangling over the debt limit.
"As the events of the past week have made clear, the world is watching the work of this committee," Reid said.
Boehner will name the other co-chair. Just as Reid chose a party loyalist, Boehner is likely to choose a stout conservative.
In a conference call Tuesday with rank and file House Republicans, Boehner said his three selections to the joint committee will be "people of courage who understand the gravity of this situation and are committed to doing what needs to be done," according an account provided by a House GOP aide. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., are among the names most frequently mentioned by congressional aides and lobbyists as Boehner's likely picks. Ryan and Camp were also deficit commission members but voted against the co-chairmen's recommendations, citing tax increases and inadequate cost curbs of federal health care programs.
Boehner also said he and other House and Senate leaders of both parties want the newly created panel to conduct "open hearings and a public process."
Political activists and lobbyists said other likely picks include Reps. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., a member of the House Democratic leadership, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the No. 2 Senate Republican; Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a Bush administration budget director; and Mike Johanns, R-Neb., his state's former governor, also are possibilities.
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