WASHINGTON -- In order to shore up GOP support for a deal to raise the debt ceiling, Senate Democrats are exploring ways of giving the proposed "super Congress" even greater super powers, according to multiple news reports and congressional aides with knowledge of the plan.
Under the new proposal, if the new legislative body, made up of six Democrats and six Republicans from both chambers, doesn't come up with a bill that cuts at least $1.5 trillion by Thanksgiving, entitlement programs will automatically be slashed.
Under the reported framework, legislation the new congressional committee writes would be fast-tracked through Congress and could not be filibustered or amended.
The parties have been negotiating the particulars of cuts that would be enacted if budget-cutting legislation coming out of the super Congress could not get passed, deciding roughly how much in cuts would come from different parts of the federal budget, including defense spending and entitlement programs like Medicare.
According to sources and a number of reports, the parties were settled on an equal split between cuts to the defense budget and trims to Medicare providers, which in theory would spare Medicare beneficiaries.
Last weekend, HuffPost reported on the extraordinary powers being delegated to the emerging super Congress, but most beltway media has largely dismissing the group as just another Washington commission.
On Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his counterpart, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sought to disabuse everyone of that notion.
"The joint committee -- there are no constraints," Reid said on the Senate floor. "They can look at any program we have in government, any program. ... It has the ability to look at everything."
"Let me emphasize the joint committee," McConnell said Sunday morning on CNN's "State of the Union." "In the early stages of this discussion, the press was talking about another commission. This is not a commission. This is a powerful, joint committee with a equal number of Republicans and Senate -- equal number of Republicans and Democrats, and, to make recommendation back to the Senate and House by Thanksgiving of this year for an up or down vote. Think of the base closing legislation that we passed a few years ago for an up or down vote in the Senate."
The sticking point, said McConnell and sources, was that Republicans were insisting on "triggers" that would automatically fire at beneficiaries of Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare if the super Congress doesn't act.
The 50-50 compromise appears to have resolved the impasse, but rank-and-file House and Senate members still had to sign on. And the defense cuts -- brokered the White House -- should have the consequence of enlisting defense lobbyists to push for entitlement cuts to stave off their own reductions.
If seniors didn't have enough to worry about, they could now be on the opposite side of Washington's most entrenched lobby.
A beefed-up super Congress will be difficult for House Democrats to swallow, but they are used to being force fed legislation they hate. In the past, they have passed unpalatable legislation under pressure -- usually by the White House -- to prevent the latest professed calamity from happening. Last winter they traded away the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the rich to get extended unemployment insurance.
That same process has already begun to unfold in this debate. House Democrats met in a caucus meeting yesterday to be briefed on the negotiations. "Caucus yesterday was devoted to how we all really needed to vote for the sucky Reid plan," said one House Democrat. "Obviously a lot of House Dems, probably most House Dems, will oppose this, but I'm not sure how many of our votes they'll need."
"There were a number of vehement warnings that votes in favor of the Reid bill should not be interpreted as blank checks for the next round of talks," said another Democrat.
"There is nothing good about being in the minority and having to work with these guys whose number one goal is to take down the President and the economy -- not come to a solution," said another House Democrat.
The progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org also fired out a statement condemning the reported framework reached between the White House and congressional Republicans, including the proposed super Congress and its triggers.
“The reason Republicans want a “Super Congress," especially one that triggers automatic cuts if it fails to reach agreement, is because it would let them slash Medicare and other vital services with no accountability," said MoveOn.org Executive Director Justin Ruben. "It is extremely troubling that it now appears that some Democrats are willing to give in to Republican demands to make this already disastrous plan worse for working families.
If both chambers of Congress swallow the scheme, the next vital component will be which legislators are picked to be the all-powerful members of the budget board.
"It will be essential to choose members with minds willing to consider every option, even when the options are tough pills to swallow for both parties," Reid warned. "Cooperation is the only way forward. Compromise is the only way forward."
This report has been updated to include new details that have developed on Sunday.