WASHINGTON -- The super committee established under the still-to-be-passed debt ceiling deal has been granted immense powers to make its recommendations law. But that doesn't mean grand bargain of sorts is summarily off the table, even if the 12 committee members get stuck or Congress ends up rejecting their suggestions.
According to the structure of the debt ceiling deal, lawmakers will have another year to find approximately $1.5 trillion in cuts through normal procedures, before so-called triggers go into effect to achieve those cuts on behalf of hesitant lawmakers.
"If the committee deadlocks or they put something out that doesn't pass Congress ... before the [trigger] hit they could pass another package of equal savings," said a White House official during a briefing on Sunday night. "So it puts pressure on people. The trigger is looming."
"Now, you don't have the benefit of fast-track authority at that point," the official added, referencing the procedural powers that the super committee would enjoy. "It has to go through regular order. But [at that point] you can resuscitate what Speaker [John Boehner] and the President were doing. They can come to that deal, get that passed and that would avoid the [triggers], or [they could do the] Gang of Six [deal]."
The several paths to further deficit reduction mean the political conversation could very well revolve around the topics of entitlement and tax reform for the next year and a half -- sucking the oxygen away from other issues. Some lawmakers may end up passing on the super committee's recommendations, believing they can get a better deal down in the next year. That could mean the main forces affected by the potential trigger -- the defense lobby and health care industry -- will have extra time to engage in a lobbying campaign to ensure that their priorities aren't threatened.
As it stands now, the debt-ceiling deal tasks a bipartisan committee with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions. The committee can do this by looking at both entitlement reform and raising revenue and will have until Nov. 23 to finish its deliberations. If a majority of the 12 committee members vote for a package of recommendations, that package will be sent to both chambers of Congress for passage. No one will be allowed to amend the suggestions offered, nor will a filibuster be permitted. A vote will be held no later than Dec. 23.
To incentivize committee success even further, the debt-ceiling deal includes a host of triggers that would be pulled if its recommendations end up shelved. The triggers ensure an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years be passed into law. Those cuts would be split evenly between domestic and defense spending.
That means a massive potential hit to the defense budget. Over 10 years, roughly $486 billion would be cut from defense spending (or 8.4 percent of what is projected to be spent on defense over that same time period). By contrast, the trigger would result in roughly $126 billion in reductions to Medicare provider payments over 10 years (or 2 percent of projected spending on Medicare suppliers over that same period).
But those triggers won't be immediate. They will only come into place beginning in 2013, giving lawmakers and lobbyists a full year to try and push the committee's package -- or some alternative -- into law.
For some members of Congress, that timeframe offers an incentive, allowing them to punt on the committee's recommendations in order to secure their own deficit-reduction package through normal procedures. Democrats, for example, may find any recommended entitlement reforms impossible to swallow. Conservative members of Congress would likely be uncomfortable voting for any final package that includes tax increases. To do so would risk the possibility of the Bush-era tax cuts lapsing, along with the triggers being pulled, at the end of 2012.
But that might be a tax gamble lawmakers are willing to make, considering the extension compromise the GOP was able to extract from Obama when the Bush tax cuts were first set to expire at the end of 2010.
At Sunday night's briefing, Several White House officials insisted the president would veto legislation that extended the Bush tax cuts for the rich -- a threat one aide insisted the president never made during the first go-around.
"If you are adamantly opposed to returning the rates for the wealthiest Americans to what they were in the Clinton administration then you have a tremendous incentive to deal with it in the tax reform process," a White House official said of Republican lawmakers. "If they send something that has the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy attached, [Obama] will veto it."
Officials also argued that enough enticements and penalties are in place to secure an effective super committee. They said members of Congress would likely recoil at the gamesmanship involved in shelving the committee's recommendations and therefore feel compelled to place well-intentioned lawmakers on the committee.
One White House Official said Republicans would be unlikely to stack the committee with Tea Party members, "because they have the same incentives. The worse case scenario for Republicans, if you don't want tax increases, is to have it end up in a place where the committee fails. They do not want the committee to fail."