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Maya MacGuineas in High Demand During Fiscal Debate

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Maya MacGuineas might be one of the most influential bipartisan deal-makers on Capitol Hill, but unless you’re a budget wonk, you’ve probably never heard of her.

“She’s a trusted intermediary,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said of MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

“She wants to solve the problem,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) added.

“She’s smart and practical, tough and charming, and if you had two or three more Maya MacGuineases, you’d have fiscal stability in this country,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said.

The 43-year-old budget specialist has worked closely with those Members and dozens more as a nonpartisan figure who helped facilitate the “gang of six” negotiations this year.

She co-hosted an off-the-record dinner at Warner’s Northern Virginia home last month featuring a bipartisan group of Members and budget experts. And earlier this month, she led a similar breakfast meeting on Capitol Hill after 100 House Members released a letter to the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction urging the panel to push for a “big” deal.

As Warner said, MacGuineas’ efforts have “morphed into a semicampaign.” And she continues to stump with the vigor of a candidate.

The CRFB prominently features a “go big” page on its website, which urges members of the deficit panel to push for a deal that exceeds its $1.2 trillion statutory goal. The website includes an appeal by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who served as co-chairman of the White House fiscal commission that unveiled its own sweeping proposal last year, and similar pleas from business groups.

Letters from House and Senate Members who, like the gang of six, met privately for months with MacGuineas’ frequent help, are also highlighted on the site. A large group of those bipartisan lawmakers will appear at a joint press conference today to reiterate the “go big” message.

MacGuineas has paired up Democrats and Republicans to go public with their message, along the lines of Warner and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the gang of six members who made their own joint appearances to sell their deal. While she downplays her level of involvement in the bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill, aides and Members insist she is a persistent force behind the House and Senate letters urging the deficit panel to reach a
$4 trillion deal.

As the committee’s Nov. 23 deadline approaches and rank-and-file Members grow increasingly anxious about their proposal — or potential failure to produce one — MacGuineas is being called on more and more.

“I spend a lot more time with Senators than I ever used to,” the Washington, D.C., native said in a recent interview.

With the exception of a stint on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2000 presidential campaign, MacGuineas has stayed out of partisan politics. She previously worked on Wall Street and at the Brookings Institution and came to the CRFB, which is affiliated with the New America Foundation, in 2003. Since then, she has steadily built a reputation as a readily available contact for Members on budgetary issues.

“Alan Simpson knows her and Members rely on her, and yet, I know that she will always take my call,” one Democratic aide said.

The organization MacGuineas leads is politically diverse and includes a long list of experts ranging from Alice Rivlin, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton and the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, to Douglas Holtz-Eakin, CBO director during the administration of President George W. Bush and president of the American Action Forum.

“She has a very broad cross section of people, which gives you a different perspective,” Coburn said. “When you’re inside this place, even though you may know a whole lot about it, some common sense doesn’t get in. And she’s been helpful in making sure we get that throughout the whole process.”

MacGuineas was an early confidante to Warner and Chambliss, whose talks eventually led to the gang of six that unveiled a $3.7 trillion deficit reduction outline in July. Though the plan’s release came too late to have an effect on the messy debt limit discussions over the summer, MacGuineas insists the group’s efforts laid the groundwork for serious deal-making.

“Maybe I get moved a little too easily, but I think it’s moving,” MacGuineas said of the group’s work. “They did something hard. And I just don’t feel like you’ve seen politicians do something hard in a long time, [and] I keep coming back to the same thing, of these Members of Congress being willing to push themselves well beyond what they would normally be comfortable with.”

Even if the super committee fails, the mother of two believes 2012 won’t necessarily be a dead year for chipping away at budget woes.

“I don’t think they’re going to be able to put the genie back in the bottle and say, ‘OK, we didn’t fix the problem. See you in a year,’” she said at the conclusion of the interview, after which she went to prepare for another Member meeting on Capitol Hill.

She added: “I feel like there may well be an opportunity to turn 2012 into the productive year that no one expected. And that’s a rare moment of optimism for me, isn’t it?”

Correction: Nov. 15, 2011

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated when Maya MacGuineas advised the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). It was in 2000.

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