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Leaders name Republicans on debt panel

Analysts say composition is key to success

By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / August 11, 2011

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WASHINGTON - A liberal stalwart from an East Coast Democratic bastion and a sneaker-wearing soccer mom from the Pacific Northwest. A Tea Party favorite from Pennsylvania and a retiring GOP lieutenant from Arizona. Three rust-belt Republicans, a Texas lawmaker known as the “budget nanny,’’ and a conservative Democratic rancher from Big Sky country.

The next stage in the tumultuous battle over the federal deficit will be in the hands of an eclectic mix of lawmakers with views spanning much of the ideological spectrum. They are part of a debt panel charged with finding common ground in a debate where compromise has proven elusive.

The panel’s mandate to reduce the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion over a decade has a short time frame in a debate packed with short fuses. While the composition of the committee is not complete - House Democrats have not yet been named to the committee - the six Republicans named yesterday and the three Senate Democrats picked Tuesday represent a potentially combustive mix.

“They cover the waterfront,’’ said Bill Frenzel, a GOP congressman of 20 years from Minnesota now affiliated with the Brookings Institution. “There are some rather left Democrats who are quite proud of being left and some rather right Republicans who are quite proud of being right.’’

Yesterday, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky chose Jon L. Kyl of Arizona, the minority whip; freshman Pat J. Toomey of Pennsylvania; and Robert J. Portman of Ohio, a former budget director for President George W. Bush.

Like his Democratic counterpart, majority leader Harry Reid, McConnell eschewed any of the Gang of Six senators. That group has been the only one to come to a comprehensive bipartisan deal on the long-term deficit, although theirs was only a framework and was not put to a vote in either chamber.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio chose House Republican Conference chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, House Ways and Means chairman Dave L. Camp of Michigan, and Energy and Commerce chairman Fred S. Upton of Michigan. While all of his choices are ardent conservative veterans, Boehner did not choose any freshman lawmaker affiliated with the Tea Party movement. Those newcomers have been polarizing forces in the debate.

The six Republicans join the three Senate Democrats Reid named Tuesday: Foreign Relations chairman John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Finance chairman Max Baucus of Montana, and Patty Murray of Washington, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The composition of the committee has been closely watched after weeks of tug of war in Congress over the deficit. The fight stretched all the way up to an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the nation’s debt limit, after which, Treasury officials warned, the nation would not have been able to meet all of its obligations.

At the 11th hour, a deal emerged to cut about $1 trillion from the projected deficit over a decade and then to name six Republican and six Democrats to a debt committee that would look for another $1.5 trillion. If it fails to reach agreement by Thanksgiving or Congress rejects its plan, automatic cuts would be triggered.

The committee faces considerable obstacles. For Democrat leaders, the final deal must include more revenues and exclude substantial cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare. Republicans are equally entrenched in their beliefs, most notably that taxes must not be raised.

It also faces immense pressure following the stock market mayhem of the past week, blamed in part on the lack of a more substantial long-term debt plan, and mounting frustration among voters.

Political analysts say the composition of the committee would be key to its success. If it is filled with hardened partisans, a compromise might be impossible. If it is filled with pragmatists, they might come to an agreement but would have difficulty selling that deal to their party’s rank and file.

Toomey proved to be one of the biggest surprises of the GOP choices yesterday. A freshman senator swept into office in the Tea Party tide last fall, Toomey has questioned whether missing the Aug. 2 default date would have resulted in the catastrophe predicted by the White House.

Political observers see him as the closest proxy for the Tea Party movement. Not only did he have solid support from conservatives energized by the Wall Street bailouts and the health care overhaul, but he once headed the Club for Growth, an influential conservative voice on spending and taxes.

Along with Hensarling, dubbed “the budget nanny’’ in a 2005 National Review article, Toomey is expected to serve as the conservative north star.

Alan K. Simpson, a former GOP senator from Wyoming who cochaired a presidential commission on debt reduction last fall, said “there are some good people on there, and there are some who are notably rigid in their thinking.’’

“We’ll see how they come around - whether they can learn to compromise without compromising themselves, whether they’ll be as rigid as a fireplace poker,’’ he said.

He had words of praise for Kerry but was notably cool toward Murray and Baucus. Hensarling and Camp, who both rejected the findings of the debt commission after serving on it, “both know the game and will be players,’’ he said.

He does not know if the committee will succeed, but hanging over its work are automatic cuts. Failure, Simpson said, will be painful.

“You’re going to see the blood flow, and it will be brutal at that point,’’ he said.

Theo Emery can be reached at temery@globe.com.