Deficit commission showing no progress

By Robert Pear for the New York Times

With just five weeks until its deadline, a secretive congressional committee seeking ways to cut the federal deficit is far from a consensus, and party leaders may need to step in if they want to ensure agreement, say people involved in the panel’s work.

The 12-member committee is just more than halfway through the 76-day interval from its first meeting to the date its final report is due, Nov. 23, but has not gained much traction. The lawmakers have not agreed on basic elements like a benchmark against which savings will be measured.

The panel’s members, evenly divided between the two parties, spent most of September in a standoff. Republicans refused to budge from their position against new taxes. Democrats said they would not discuss cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare unless Republicans made a firm commitment to accept additional revenue.

The two leaders of the panel, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, have told committee members not to talk publicly about their work. But other lawmakers and congressional aides privy to the panel’s effort have provided a remarkably consistent picture of the deliberations as the committee tries, in a matter of weeks, to find fiscal answers that have eluded Congress and the White House for years.

A Republican who has worked on Capitol Hill for more than two decades said: “Basically we are going in circles. It’s going very, very slowly. The only way this will work is if the leaders decide they want to get a deal and lay down parameters. Everybody is sitting around sucking their thumb until they get some guidance on what to do.”

Some lawmakers expressed similar views.

“My impression is they are not progressing too rapidly,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, which is responsible for Medicare, Medicaid and taxes. “Things are not moving too fast.”

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said: “These 12 people are no more autonomous than your left thumb. They need some guidance from the White House and from the leadership of Congress.”

The committee is supposed to write legislation reducing deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Committee members have not decided how to apportion the savings among various categories of spending such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, farm programs and the military and how much should be raised in revenue.