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Deficit Panel Rules Favor the ‘Extraneous’

Lobbyists Ponder Limits of Committee’s Product

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Former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove said the new joint deficit committee’s rules will allow it to consider all manner of legislative changes, including ones to Social Security.

While most of the lobbying surrounding Congress' new deficit committee will be focused on easing the pain of massive cuts, a sliver of K Street will be on the prowl for ways to help clients by sneaking in provisions that might have little chance of passing otherwise.

Unlike most fast-tracked legislation, the bill produced by the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction will not be subject to a decades-old rule named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) that bars the inclusion of "extraneous" matters on budget packages.

Without the Byrd Rule, Members can include policy and regulatory issues that have no direct budget impact as a
potential pawn in the furious horse-trading likely to take place during the next four months. And lobbyists will be right there for the action, up until the panel's Nov. 23 deadline for producing a bill.

"There will be lobbyists who look at this and think, 'If I can just get my provision into this bill, I'm golden,'" said Robert Dove, who served as Senate parliamentarian for about 12 years in the 1980s and '90s and now advises lobbyists at Patton Boggs. "That gives enormous freedom to this joint committee."

He noted that changes to Social Security would not be allowed under the Byrd Rule, but they are fair game for the new super committee.

The committee's proposal would ride a fast track to the floor with limited debate, prohibiting the use of a filibuster — meaning only 51 votes are necessary for approval — and protecting it from amendments. That's a lot like the budget reconciliation process, except that in this case the power is concentrated in the hands of just 12 Members — six Representatives and six Senators, equally divided between the parties — instead of several committees working together to find savings. Reconciliation also is open to amendment, whereas the deficit reduction package will have to be voted on as is by Dec. 23.

The short timeline combined with the exemption from the filibuster, amendments and the Byrd Rule gives the yet-to-be-selected lawmakers almost unfettered and unprecedented power. Hypothetically, they could even mandate an up-or-down vote on a package that includes language on the most controversial social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.

But at the end of the day, the joint committee will want to get a deal approved on the floor and, if they need sweeteners, will more likely turn to less-controversial issues that are not likely to capture the public's imagination.

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