WASHINGTON — Minnesota Democrats Collin Peterson and Tim Walz agree on this: Any plan to emerge from the deficit-fighting “super committee” should be a big one, reducing the deficit by $4 trillion or more over the next 10 years.
Whether they think it can happen is a different story.
Peterson said he’s seen no indication the 12-member bicameral committee will reach an agreement by its Wednesday deadline. Ideological differences are so deeply engrained that a small plan, around the $1.2 trillion the committee is tasked with forging, is the only one within reach, and even that looks far off.
Walz has a rosier view.
“I do [think it’s possible],” he said in a Wednesday interview. “It’s the right way to go, it takes and fixes the long-term structural issues, it does it in the way that brings parties together … I think its not only the best policy but it helps heal the rift around here.”
Optimism is a streaky thing on Capitol Hill. With the super committee chugging toward a Wednesday deadline and only six members per chamber (plus leadership) truly in on the discussions, those on the outside — including the entire Minnesota delegation — are left in the dark, able to only wring their hands over what a final deal will look like.
The super committee must agree to a plan that reduces the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. The committee must approve its plan by Wednesday and Congress is required to pass it by Dec. 23, or the government will automatically instate $1.2 trillion in cuts, divided between military and domestic spending, in 2013.
Minnesota Democrats universally favor a “balanced approach” and say they could support spending cuts on social safety net programs if Republicans are willing to back increased revenues. The delegation’s conservatives are slow to embrace the revenue generation plans emerging from the super committee, reserving judgment until they can view the details.
Taxes still the sticking point
The most widely reported of those plans comes from Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. His plan would raise $290 billion by limiting tax breaks for people who itemize tax deductions for mortgage-interest payments, charitable donations and local and state taxes.
The government would then lower the income tax rate across the board, in essence, making the controversial George W. Bush-era tax cuts permanent.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she could support a plan that closes enough tax loopholes and cuts enough spending to decrease the deficit by a worthwhile amount. Ideally, she said, the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans would expire, but “I’m not sure that will be in there. I’m trying to figure out how to do this realistically.”
Others insist they need to be gone.
“That’s ridiculous,” Peterson said of the possibly that they’re made permanent. “The Bush tax cuts are going to go away. They should make that decision now. That would solve a lot of this problem.”
Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat, has never voted to instate or extend the Bush tax cuts. She said she’s not about to start now.
Ending the Bush taxes is also a cornerstone of the super committee recommendations offered by Rep. Keith Ellison’s Congressional Progressive Caucus. The caucus would impose several new high-earner income tax brackets and begin counting capital gains and dividend income as regular income for those making more than $1 million.
That latter idea is a proposal that, while still a non-starter with Republicans, counts President Obama as a supporter.
Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s ideal super committee solution would have that as its centerpiece. He’d also institute a provision requiring Congress to pay for armed conflicts instead of taking on debt to fund them and allow Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for cheaper drugs.
Franken also signed off on one possible super committee solution — the committee would report its agreed-upon spending cuts and ask the congressional tax-writing committees to determine where the revenue component would come from.
“None of the ‘I’s’ will be dotted … none of the ‘I’s’ will even be written down,” he said, “but I could see that.”
Republicans, meanwhile, haven’t committed to any proposed revenue plan. Rep. Chip Cravaack said the Republican caucus was briefed on the outlines of a plan similar to Toomey’s on Monday — it would cut $1 trillion in spending cuts and find $500 billion in new revenue, half from administrative savings on things like fees and permitting and half from a revised tax code. On Wednesday, he said he’d need to see the specifics of any revenue generation plan before he could agree to one.
Rep. John Kline said the same thing, adding that he trusts the super committee Republicans to craft an acceptable package.
“I’ll feel comfortable that if it’s a package that’s supported by the likes of Pat Toomey and [Rep.] Jeb Hensarling, it’s probably going to be a package I can support,” he said.
Peterson working to finalize agriculture cuts
Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, a presidential candidate, has opposed the very idea of the super committee. On the campaign trail, she has spoken out against new taxes and said deficit reduction measures should be based on cutting spending.
Republicans in general regard spending cuts as a better way to go forward than raising taxes during a time of weak economic growth.
“The problem is the spending. We have to get the spending under control,” Cravaack said. He’d start by reforming Medicare’s funding model and eliminate duplicative government programs.
Democrats acknowledge the necessity of spending cuts, but, like Republicans and taxes, they’re generally not jumping at the chance to detail where those cuts should come from. McCollum, for one, said she’d only support changes to entitlement program spending if Republicans agreed to cut military spending or increase an acceptable amount of revenue.
Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, is set to sign off on a plan cutting more than $23 billion in federal agriculture spending by reforming the way the government subsidizes farmers. Under the plan, the government would stop direct payments to farmers and expand insurance programs that protect against crop loss or dramatic decreases in commodity prices.
The chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees had promised to finalize the plan by Nov. 1. Peterson said regional disputes among members of the Senate have held up the plan, but he hopes to reach a deal by the end of the day today and send specifics to the super committee.
“I never thought the super committee was a good idea, personally,” he said. “As long as the process is there, we’ve tried to deal with it. We were told to come up with cuts, which we did. No other committee is even working on this … In the other committees, the Democrats took one position, the Republicans another and now they don’t even talk to each other.”
Republicans oppose mandatory military cuts
If Congress can’t pass a plan from the super committee by December, domestic and military programs will be set to absorb $1.2 trillion in cuts — called sequesters — starting in 2013.
The defense cuts are especially hard for Republicans to accept. Cravaack said such a cut would “decimate” the United States military, echoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said this week that $600 billion in cuts, on top of $450 billion in reductions the Pentagon is already set to absorb over the next decade, could leave the military with its smallest fighting force since 1940.
Kline called the potential cuts “unbearable.”
“We can’t let that happen,” he said. “One way or the other, that’s the bottom line.”
Congress could repeal the sequesters, especially if it looks like there’s not enough support to pass a deficit reduction plan before the end of the year. But Democrats have opposed pulling back the threat of sequestration. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said so bluntly at a Thursday press conference.
“I don’t like it, but the way to do away with it is to act now,” she said.
Noting Republicans had voted to include the threat of deep defense cuts when they authorized the super committee in July, McCollum said rescinding the sequesters now would be tantamount to “changing the rules of the game.”
Franken said even discussing the removal of the sequesters “incentivizes not coming up with an agreement.” Walz called it “lazy legislating.”
Klobuchar wouldn’t say whether she’d support repealing sequestration, insisting she thinks the super committee will come to an acceptable consensus in time.
“I really don’t want to go there,” she said. “I really think this needs to get done.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry