After passing the bill to raise America's borrowing limit yesterday around noon, the U.S. Senate debated some minor points and speechified for a few hours before going into recess for the remainder of the month. The House recessed as well and will return around Labor Day. August is typically a very slow month for us political junkies as members of Congress visit their states and districts and engage in what we like to call casework, also known as schmoozing with the folks who hold your electoral fortunes in their wallets, er, hands. That doesn't mean Congress won't be working and members will spend all their time away from Washington by any means. Members will come and go, still appear on the Sunday shows to run down their opponents, occasionally hold press conferences to denounce this or that, and so on.
One task that must be performed by the leadership during this break is the appointment of the twelve members of the 'Secret Congress' as some are referring to it here in Mississippi. The only thing is that it will be neither secret nor a Congress! I am referring, of course, to the twelve members who will comprise the bipartisan committee tasked with locating an additional $1.5 trillion in spending cuts before the end of December. If they fail to reach a bipartisan agreement it will trigger automatic cuts in Medicare, dear to Democrats and despised by Republicans, and defense spending, cheered by Republicans and thought to be excessive by many Democrats. It is, in a sense, the classic 'butter vs. guns' debate...in a society with limited resources how do we maximize our acquisition of both?
Beyond that, the so-called 'secret Congress' is nothing out of the ordinary...it is effectively a bipartisan joint committee assembled for a specific purpose, usually referred to as a select committee, that will be disbanded once their work is done. In order to avoid the spending cut triggers the committee must produce a deal that is agreed to by 7 of the 12 members, a tall order to be sure. Whether or not that happens hinges upon who is on the committee. Here's the way I see it:
First, the House of Representatives. Speaker John Boehner gets three slots on the committee. He likely appoints one Tea-Party backed member who will oppose any package containing revenue increases, even in the form of the elimination of tax deductions. The other two picks will likely be someone from a district with many defense contracts, giving the member an incentive to reach a deal and avoid defense cuts. The third will be a wildcard and probably unimportant in the long run since a simple majority can reach an agreement.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will also have three selections, one is likely to be a 'blue dog' Democrat (what used to be called conservatives in the Reagan era), one true liberal Democrat who will fight to protect domestic programs, and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, to represent a core Democratic constituency.
On the Senate side, Democrat Harry Reid will have to make some tough choices. Senators are notably more moderate, whether liberal or conservative, than House members, primarily since they represent entire states. Even the most conservative or liberal states are no more than a 65-35 split, so centrist views often come into play here. My own feeling is that Dick Durbin of Illinois would be an excellent selection for the committee. Apart from that, your guess is as good as mine.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell will also have some tough choices to make. Since getting a deal done is important to him, I think certain outspoken Senators will not be appointed, particularly Jim DeMint of South Carolina, though his colleague and defense hawk Lindsay Graham, who voted against the deal, might make the list since he has been known to work in a bipartisan fashion in the past. Other possibilities might include Sen. John McCain, Thad Cochran, and Scott Brown.
The bottom line is that the composition of this committee will be the most important decision that party leaders in Congress make over the next few weeks. Putting the wrong people on the committee will make getting a deal done nearly impossible. The choices the leadership makes will tell us a lot about their priorities for the remainder of this Congress.
Meanwhile, the lobbyists on K Street are breaking out their checkbooks to start trying to save the perks they've won for their clients over the past few decades. As one lobbyist put it yesterday, 'I've got 12 blank checks ready.' He just needs to know who to write them to.