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Means Testing May Be Coburn’s Next Big Fight

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Tom Coburn is hoping a report detailing aid received by millionaires will lead to means testing for social safety net benefits.

He and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), year after year, would put out "pork" reports listing often in a humorous way directed spending that lawmakers would get into appropriations bills.

After the GOP won control of the House in last year's elections, Senate Democratic leaders and reluctant Republican appropriators who supported earmarks as part of their mandate under the Constitution to oversee spending agreed to a two-year moratorium on earmarks.

The report also comes after Coburn, who is well-respected in conservative circles, this year took on anti-tax pundit Grover Norquist over what counts as a tax increase.

Norquist has made a name for himself by getting lawmakers to sign a pledge that they will not support tax increases. But Coburn challenged Norquist over the "gang of six" proposal to cut $4 trillion from the deficit over 10 years. The package included repealing tax code subsidies, which Norquist argued would be tantamount to tax increases.

Coburn's report on subsidies for the wealthy also lists about $30 billion in tax breaks that millionaires benefit from annually, including some such as the mortgage interest deduction and the child care tax credit, that also apply to lower-income brackets.

But by bringing up the issue of means testing during Congress' efforts to get the deficit under control, Coburn may be hoping for results similar to his earmark fight. And while Democrats have traditionally opposed means testing as a slippery slope to eliminating entitlement programs, liberals and moderates said Tuesday they would not reject the idea outright.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said that means testing for Social Security and Medicare is something that should be explored.

"I think there is a fair way we can do that," Lautenberg said, adding that the wealthy "should do something extra" in these tough economic times.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she would not rule out means testing, but the details would determine what she could support. She added that she was heartened that Coburn is concerned with the "income gap in this country and I would hope it would be reflected in what he supports in terms of tax policy for millionaires."

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) was circumspect about the matter, but he insisted everything should be considered to help get the nation on a better fiscal footing.

"Means testing benefits would not be one of the first things I would look at, or even the second or third thing. But in general, in talking about the budget and our deficits, I have continued to insist that everything should be on the table so I won't categorically rule it out," Coons said.

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