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Debt Issue Remains Contentious

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sens. Bob Corker (center) and Mark Udall (right) both regret that the August debt ceiling deal did not result in an agreement on deficit reduction, and they hope there will be more opportunities for such an agreement in the near future.

Today’s balanced budget amendment votes in the Senate will fulfill the letter of the law but will do little beyond putting a coda on Congress’ failure to reach a bipartisan deficit reduction deal this year.

Following the collapse of the super committee last month and the House’s own unsuccessful vote to pass a balanced budget amendment, the Senate votes today appear to be a futile exercise that nevertheless is required by the August debt deal. That law held that both chambers must vote on constitutional amendments to balance the budget, even if one chamber had already failed to pass it. As was the result in the House, the Senate is not expected to pass either the Democratic or the GOP balanced budget offering today.

Despite leaving lawmakers feeling unfulfilled, Members accept that the debt deal at least succeeded in creating the political conditions to allow the debt ceiling to be raised by $2.1 trillion, and it will result in cutting the deficit by the same amount. However, $1.2 trillion of that will come in an across-the-board cut, which lawmakers and budget experts believe is bad policy.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who voted for the debt ceiling deal, said he sees it as “an enormous lost opportunity.”

Udall was among a group of Senators urging the committee to agree to a “big” deal that would cut about $4 trillion from the deficit over 10 years.

Udall also said the increase in the debt ceiling was a necessary achievement, although it came at a price: the first-ever downgrade of United States’ credit rating.

“It was [successful] in a very elemental way,” Udall said. “We raised the debt ceiling. We did it too late, much to my great consternation and anger because of the downgrade of the country’s credit [rating]. So in that way, it was not a futile effort.

“Do I wish the super committee had come up with a proposal and gone big? Yes,” Udall continued. “Do I think we need some way to bind future Congresses so we don’t get ourselves in this situation again? Yes.”

Udall and five other Senate Democrats are sponsoring their party’s version of the balanced budget amendment, which the Senate will consider today.

Under the proposal, which needs 67 votes to pass, the federal government would be prohibited from spending more than it brings in, unless there are 60 votes to waive the requirement. Social Security would be protected from balanced budget requirements, and millionaires would not get tax breaks unless the nation is running a surplus.

Senate Republicans, led by Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch (Utah), have their own proposal, which the Senate will also consider.

The Republican proposal would require a two-thirds supermajority of both chambers to raise taxes and would cap total federal spending at 18 percent of the gross domestic product.

All 47 Senate Republicans support the bill, but, like the Democratic measure, it is not expected to pass.

The expected failure of the proposals is a reminder to lawmakers that events did not go as hoped under the debt ceiling accord, but some Members seem to believe that a deal is still reachable.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who also voted for the debt ceiling deal, said he was very disappointed that the agreement did not yield more deficit reduction.

He praised the $900 billion in cuts that were immediately put in place by the deal, but he lamented that the super committee, established by the agreement, could not develop a bipartisan package to cut $1.2 trillion.

“We got $900 billion and the committee; even though we are going to spend $44 trillion over the next 10 years, not being able to find $1.2 trillion in reductions deficitwise is kind of a disgrace,” he said.

Corker, who also backed a big deficit reduction deal, believes there will likely be another push in Congress to forge an agreement.

“There are efforts under way to figure out another way of getting at least
$1.2 trillion” in deficit reduction, Corker said, adding that he hopes there could be a vote on a plan in the spring.

The $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board cuts that were triggered by the super committee’s failure will go into effect beginning in 2013. Nearly half that amount would come from defense spending, and Republicans have vowed to roll back at least that portion.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said she believes the failures of the deficit deal help to move along the debate.

“I think each one of these things in the political arena right now actually brings us closer to a deal, even though it feels kind of discouraging along the way,” MacGuineas said, adding that action could come before the elections. “Even with each one of these setbacks, the issue isn’t going away. Though they are not wins, I think they are necessary, discouraging, painful steps that you have to keep taking until the moment that a deal can pass actually presents itself.” 

But Jim Horney, vice president for federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, believes that none of these issues are likely to be revisited until after the election.

“Most likely, we will just continue given the current political situation until after the election, and then the results of the elections will matter a great deal as people recalibrate what it is we need to do, what it is we can do, where are the votes and what are the political calculations,” Horney said.

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