Which Three Democratic Senators?

08/01/2011 08:15 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2011

The House and Senate are getting ready to vote on the deal struck to avoid America defaulting on her debts. Nobody knows exactly the magnitude of what is being cut in detail yet, and the news media seem more interested in the eternal "who's up/who's down" horserace nonsense than in informing the public what exactly has been agreed to in this deal. This should come as no surprise, since it is (as always) ever so much more fun for "journalists" to blather on about "what it all means" seen through the political lens, instead of "what it all means" in terms of... well, what it actually is going to mean for America. Perhaps in a few days, when they get bored with the political aspects, we'll finally find out exactly what the cuts are going to cover.

One thing is for certain, though, and that is there will be a newly-formed joint congressional committee which is going to have a lot of power over the second stage of this grand debate. Currently, the progressive media seems most obsessed with pushing their own cutesy-poo names for this committee (I, for one, refuse to use the term "Super Congress" -- since it is not, on many levels -- only the worst of the snappy and "oh-so-clever" names I've heard bandied about). Progressives should wake up and realize that, rather than winning the "media branding battle," they should instead start paying close attention to who exactly is going to sit on this committee. Because that is going to determine the outcome of this fight -- no matter what the committee is called by the inside-the-Beltway types.

There will be 12 members on the new joint budget committee. The membership will be broken down by house of Congress (six each), and by political party (also six each). Which means that, on the Democratic side, Nancy Pelosi will be naming three committee members and Harry Reid will be naming three.

These choices are going to be crucial for whatever the committee does (or fails to do). Because Congress has apparently learned the lesson of the Bowles-Simpson commission, where no plan managed to get approval from the required minimum number of voting members. So they've lowered the bar considerably, this time around. In the new congressional joint committee, any plan will only require 7 votes out of 12 in order to move to Congress at large. Which means if one Democrat votes for a Republican plan, then that will be the committee's official plan. Any plan which gets seven votes will then move to the floor of both the House and Senate for "up or down" votes -- with no amendments possible. That's a lot of responsibility. Which makes the committee members' choice essential.

For instance, just imagine what Joe Lieberman could be convinced to vote for, should he be named to the committee by Harry Reid. Thankfully, while this was the best "bad example" I could think of, it is not likely to happen. But there are plenty of Democratic senators who would be equally as chilling to see on the joint committee as the now-Independent Lieberman. Remember, each party in each house only gets to name three people -- and if only one Democrat jumps ship, then the rest of them become largely irrelevant to the process.

Neither Pelosi nor Reid will themselves sit on the committee -- that's about the only sure bet. Tradition (and politics) pretty much preclude either leader from such committee work. Everything else, however, is up in the air -- especially in the Senate.

Nancy Pelosi will likely name three Democrats from what has been aptly called the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." It is more than likely that the three House Democrats on the committee will fight to uphold core Democratic principles during the debate. But while the House of Representatives runs mostly on a top-down system (where the leadership is free to choose whomever they wish for such special assignments), the Senate is mostly all about seniority.

Reid could begin by naming one (or even both) of his top lieutenants to sit on the joint committee -- Dick Durbin of Illinois, or Chuck Schumer of New York. Either one would be a strong Democratic voice on the committee. If the committee were larger, both might even appear on it, but since Reid's only got three choices, it's likely that only one of them will be named. Of course, neither one of them may get Reid's nod in the end, but either one of them would likely be seen as widely acceptable within the Democratic Party ranks.

Reid could also go with the senior members of the Senate committees which deal with the budget and the economy. There are four of these major committees -- two Senate committees, and two joint committees with the House.

From the Senate Budget Committee Reid could select Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Conrad has already announced he is retiring from the Senate next year, and so will not be distracted by the campaign issues others might have. But Conrad is pretty conservative for a Democrat, and was in fact instrumental in helping kill the "public option" in the health care reform debate. Conrad was then threatened with a primary challenge by the AFL-CIO, which may have been instrumental in his decision to step down. Choosing Conrad would be the equivalent of Harry Reid waving a big "we surrender" flag to the Republicans, from the very start of the committee's formation, in other words. Conrad, literally, would have nothing to lose by signing on to a Republican plan, if he becomes a member of the committee.

From the Senate Appropriations Committee, Reid could also select Chairman Daniel Inouye of Hawai'i. Inouye has been in Congress since Hawaii first became a state in 1959, and who plans on running for a record tenth term in the Senate in 2016, when he will be 92 years old.

From the Joint Economic Committee Reid could pick Chairman Bob Casey from Pennsylvania, who might not be all that bad a choice, in terms of standing up for Democratic principles. Casey doesn't vote straight party-line (he's pro-life, for instance), but he is a pretty strong candidate, in terms of defending things Democrats hold dear. He is up for re-election next year, though.

The ranking Democrat on the Joint Committee on Taxation would be an unmitigated disaster, because his name happens to be Max Baucus, of Montana. Not only is Baucus as conservative (if not more so) as Conrad, he's also an expert at wasting time. Baucus was the one who, during the health care reform debate, had a group of doctors arrested and hauled away because they had the temerity to protest that Baucus refused to include any supporters of the single-payer option, in the first committee hearing on health care reform. Baucus then spent an entire summer doing precisely nothing with his committee, in the midst of a ticking-clock atmosphere -- which should automatically disqualify him from being named to a joint committee which has to come up with a fully-fledged plan by Thanksgiving.

There are other choices from these four committees of Democratic Senators with enough clout and seniority to sit on the new joint budget committee. Patty Murray of Washington, Ron Wyden of Oregon, or even Patrick Leahy from Vermont would all likely be strongly supported by the Democratic rank and file. Wyden, in particular, has crafted a few creative deals in the past with Republicans (although none of them actually passed, to the best of my knowledge).

Of course, Reid is technically free to select anyone he wants for the new joint committee. He could delight the progressives by naming Bernie Sanders, Al Franken, and Sherrod Brown to the committee, for instance. However, I wouldn't exactly advise progressives to hold their breath waiting for Reid's announcement of this particular trio.

I have no idea when the committee membership will be announced. It could come quite early, or it could wait until Congress returns from the four-week paid vacation they are about to take. But, as we've all seen, the stakes are high. The committee will have the same exact sweeping powers which Congress as a whole already possesses -- the ability to decide matters of taxation and federal spending. The entire exercise is nothing more than a gigantic avoidance of responsibility by Congress at large. It is all-but-guaranteed to produce lots of fun television right before the holiday season dawns, this November. Lots of high drama will, no doubt, ensue. Tune in to see the show!

But beyond the fatuous nature of the new process, handing the responsibility of Congress as a whole over to six Democrats and six Republicans is serious business. While Democrats will likely have a reasonably high degree of trust for the members named to the joint committee by Nancy Pelosi, those named by Harry Reid could be more questionable. A lot more questionable, in fact. So it might behoove the liberal and progressive groups right about now to start lobbying Reid's office as hard as they know how, in order to get candidates named to the new joint budget committee who can be relied upon to protect Democratic core interests and support the core Democratic agenda in the negotiations to come.

The only silver lining for Democrats anxiously awaiting the committee's new roster is the fact that Republicans are going through exactly the same process -- because they're terrified that a reasonable Republican senator will be named to the committee who might just go along with the Democrats. It's only going to take one vote to cross the aisle in order for either party to take command of whatever plan emerges, remember. Meaning the committee's membership is going to be absolutely crucial, in the end.


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