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The next deficit deal: There's a rough road ahead

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Aug. 4 2011 1:40 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this July 23, 2011 file photo, President Barack Obama meets with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. The struggle to head off a national debt default played out on two tracks, as do most big things in the capital. One was for show. The other was for real. The two tracks finally came together, in the knick of time, on Tuesday, when the Senate granted final passage to legislation raising the debt ceiling, trimming spending and punting the most painful decisions on deficits down the road. President Barack Obama's pen sealed the deal.

Carolyn Kaster, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — The special panel's goal is lofty: concoct a deal both parties will embrace to slash federal deficits by a mammoth $1.5 trillion or more over the next decade.

Yet from the moment House and Senate leaders appoint the 12 members until the 2012 elections, hurricane-force political pressures are going to make it tough to produce anything substantial.

All sides will fiercely defend core priorities, Republicans opposing tax increases and defense cuts and Democrats protecting benefits for Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid recipients. Those happen to be exactly where nonpartisan analysts say savings must occur for any serious deficit-cutting package to emerge.

The decisions — at least the next big ones — rest with the committee set up by the agreement that defused the debt-limit crisis this week.

Every choice will have implications for President Barack Obama's re-election, for Republican hopefuls jockeying to unseat him and for Democrats and Republicans struggling for control of the House and Senate.

If the special committee of lawmakers fails to produce a savings plan by Thanksgiving or if Congress rejects it by Christmas, this week's compromise debt limit accord between Obama and Congress will automatically trigger cuts of $1.2 trillion from much of the budget, with half from the military.

That would mean "dangerous across-the-board defense cuts that would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families and our ability to protect the nation," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared Wednesday.

Here's a map of the road ahead, based on interviews with two dozen lawmakers, aides and lobbyists:

APPOINTING COMMITTEE MEMBERS

Within two weeks, Democratic and GOP leaders of the House and Senate will each name three lawmakers to form the new 12-member committee.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are sure to name members who will be unquestionably loyal to them and their party's interests.

The special committee will need approval by just seven members to send a package to Congress for a vote with no changes allowed. No leader can afford to appoint a wild card who might stray.

The leaders have another incentive to name loyalists who follow party orthodoxy: self-preservation. None wants to lose seats in the next election, or risk a rebellion by rank-and-file lawmakers that might cost them their leadership posts because a committee agreement abandons party priorities.

"People's political survivability might be at stake here, both for members and control of each chamber," said Robert Reischauer, president of the nonpartisan Urban Institute.

Appointees will probably have budget expertise. It could be risky to name legislators who were members of the Simpson-Bowles commission or the Senate's "Gang of Six," bipartisan groups that proposed budget plans that included higher taxes and benefit cuts, because they might embrace a compromise that party leaders oppose.

So far, names floated as possible Republican members include Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 GOP leader who is retiring after this term; Rob Portman of Ohio, White House budget chief under President George W. Bush; and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, a first-termer and former governor.

Other GOP possibilities include House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Possibilities from the other party include Senate No. 2 Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who is not seeking re-election.

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