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Steny Hoyer Is Still Trying to ‘Go Big’ on Deficit

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

The primacy of calls for major deficit reduction have all but stagnated, but House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer is trying to revive an urgency in Washington, D.C., around his signature issue.

Despite the long odds, as well as the failure of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, the Maryland Democrat on Monday called for passing a debt deal before November’s elections.

“We must not wait for the next election,” the No. 2 House Democrat said. “There’s never a moment when we are free from the constraints of our politics.”

Hoyer was scant on details. But in keeping his intentions on the front burner, he is trying to ensure he remains center stage and assuring his fellow House Members, who stuck their necks out in calling for a balanced approach, that he is still working to that end.

Last year, Hoyer teamed with more than 100 House Members of both parties and dozens of Senators to urge the super committee to “go big,” or hit the deficit with revenue increases and spending cuts.

It was to no avail, but he and other Members of the group are still working to craft a proposal this spring to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years.

“Members of both parties on both sides of the Capitol are working to make sure that the next time we find ourselves at an impasse, which could be sooner rather than later, we will be ready with a legislative package in hand,” Hoyer said.

He routinely mentions large-scale deficit reduction plans in meetings with reporters, and on Monday, while other Members were on Congressional delegations or in their districts, Hoyer gave the remarks calling for urgency at an event at Union Station sponsored by Democratic think tank Third Way.

Hoyer’s chances at spurring substantive action are iffy at best in an election year. It’s unclear how many of the more than 100 “go big” coalition Members would still back a comprehensive proposal, even if leadership allowed it to come to the floor.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who signed November’s letter pressuring the super committee, said he was still engaged but that his involvement is limited right now.

“I signed on and will continue to support it even though there may not be much that we can do on our side,” the Missouri Democrat said Monday.

The Congressional Black Caucus chairman acknowledged the heavy lift of tackling such an issue in the runup to a general election and in a divided Congress.

“All I have is hope,” Cleaver said. “And to be honest, you know, every time I hear vitriol from one side or the other, it reduces my level of hope, but it’s still there. I haven’t completely given up.”

Senate staff is currently drafting language that could be the basis for a proposal this year, although the timing on its release is unclear. Some hope for action by this spring before legislating is overtaken by the summer campaign season, although Hill aides acknowledge that timeline is optimistic. A more realistic scenario, some say, is for something to be unveiled in time for the potential lame-duck session when Congress will have to consider whether to extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and payroll tax holiday.

One thing Hoyer’s politicking demonstrated Monday was a fear that the efforts of the coalition could become a political nonentity, much like the Senate’s “gang of six” last year in the lead-up to the debt limit debate. That bipartisan group never had backing from its leadership, and nothing ever came of its plan to cut the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the gang of six, touted the group’s message at a Harvard University event last week and hopes to do more public addresses about the issue.

For the most part, though, the gang of six is in a holding pattern. Senate staffers, meanwhile, are working on a plan that updates the Simpson-Bowles proposal that would, among other things, raise the retirement age and cap the growth of Medicare and Medicaid.

“The plan needs to be updated, and for a group of Senators to come out and say they support the plan, the agreement needs to be among them,” one Senate aide said. “So I think it’s not an issue of competition as much as if either group is going to launch a plan, they have to feel comfortable owning it.”

Just like last year, Members are also trying to find the sweet spot between talking up their efforts in public to keep the focus shining bright while avoiding a multifront sales pitch that could lead to colossal disappointment if House and Senate negotiators fail to come to an agreement.

“You don’t want to do this and just get crushed because then you’ve wasted your shot,” the aide said.

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