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Harsh debates loom in Congress as Durbin predicts debt-ceiling deal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Warning that the economy would "go further downhill" if the debt limit is not raised, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called on political leaders Sunday to make "hard choices" and predicted that a deal can be struck before the Aug. 2 deadline. 

"We know what we need to do," Durbin said on the CBS "Face the Nation" program. "The president does not need to spell it out. We need the political will to do it." 

Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, said that the Senate's majority and minority leaders -– Democrat Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky -- were "sitting down and working out an approach that we're going to try to tackle this week" as a compromise plan to raise the debt ceiling.

But that complicated proposal -- whose initial version was slammed by both conservative Republicans and some Democrats, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- is being developed on a separate track from the debt-related measures that will be debated this week in the Senate and House. 

Those proposals are the conservative "cut, cap and balance" plan -- supported by many Republicans, including Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood -- that would cut non-defense discretionary spending to 2006 levels; impose varying federal spending caps from 2012 to 2021; and require Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution before it can raise the debt ceiling. Separate votes are also likely on such balanced budget amendments.

While Durbin predicted that the Senate will not approve a balanced budget amendment, he said that debate was demanded by Republicans, and "we have to check the boxes" before moving on to more likely solutions. Appearing on the same CBS program, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said Congress should approve such an amendment because "we have a terrible track record, Republicans and Democrats alike, of promising to get our spending under control but yet never doing it."

Blunt and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., are co-sponsoring the Senate Republican version of the balanced budget amendment, but an alternative also might be offered. McCaskill told the Beacon last week that, before making a decision, she would scrutinize details of balanced-budget options to see "whether it's a realistic trajectory, in terms of how many years it takes us to get to the balance [and] safeguards for emergencies, how much protection there is for Social Security."

Meanwhile, the last-ditch debt plan being refined by McConnell and Reid faced criticism from conservative Republicans and some Democrats. Under McConnell's initial version, the debt ceiling would be raised in three stages, each of which would require veto-override votes that would likely allow congressional Republicans to blame President Barack Obama and the Democrats for raising the debt limit. 

The McConnell plan "is just kicking the can down the road," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, on Fox News Sunday. "The American people sent us here to make big, tough choices. They didn't send us here to set up a commission and give the president veto power."

Jordan chairs the conservative, 175-member Republican Study Committee, whose members include every Missouri Republican other than Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, as well as nine Illinois GOP members, including Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville. Jordan said that he and most other House Republicans would back the "cut, cap and balance" plan this week.

On the Senate side, Coburn said he was "unlikely" to vote for the McConnell option, although its final version is not yet known. "The McConnell plan is more of Washington not taking responsibility. It's a great political plan -- it takes the pressure off all the politicians but allows us to pass a debt limit [extension] without making the hard choices that this country has to make," Coburn said.

Coburn said on "Face the Nation" that he would release details of a new proposal Monday that would offer $9 trillion in budget reductions over a decade. He said negotiators should consider some of those suggested cuts. Both Coburn and Durbin had served on and supported the controversial recommendations in December of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

The co-chair of that commission, former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, told the Beacon last week that congressional failure to raise the debt limit and approve a significant deficit-reduction plan would lead to serious economic consequences and a backlash from disgruntled voters.

Coburn withdrew in May from the "Gang of Six" senators, including Durbin, that have been meeting to try to come up with a deal -- to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years -- that could pass the Senate. But he said Sunday that "Dick Durbin has worked real hard to try to build a consensus at around $4 trillion -– and we have to have something of at least $4 to $4.5 trillion if, in fact, we're going to send a signal that we understand our problem."

For his part, Durbin said "we don't need a [balanced-budget] amendment. ... We basically need to accept the responsibility to do this job and to lead." Accusing some Republicans of making "highly irresponsible" statements that downplay its impact, he said that failing to raise the debt limit would lead to higher interest rates, a worsening recession, the loss of jobs and failing businesses.

"The bottom line is we can do it," said Durbin. "There are some hard choices here. But let us not default on America's debt for the first time in history." 

House Members Prepare for Budget Debates

As the debate swirled over the debt and deficit, members of Congress from the St. Louis region prepared to debate the Republicans' "cut, cap and balance" proposal as well as a balanced budget amendment. Akin said Friday that he is cosponsoring the "cut, cap and balance" plan as "a realistic response to the looming debt limit crisis." He called the deficit "the most serious threat we currently face as a nation."

Akin, a member of the House Budget Committee, said in a statement that "if we do not recognize and correct the massive overspending we are choosing a path to ultimate financial ruin such as the one Greece now suffers from." But he opposes tax increases, saying that "we have a spending problem in Washington not a revenue problem."

A supporter of the controversial budget plan advocated by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Akin said, "We need more than press conferences and vague, empty promises of future reform that the president is offering."

Taking a less strident position, Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said Democrats and Republicans "need to put aside our differences and work together to solve this problem for the American people." He called for "a balanced approach, making serious cuts to reduce our debt without endangering our fragile recovery or scapegoating our seniors."

In a statement to the Beacon, Carnahan said he is "confident that in the end we'll get this done. America is strong; it's time for American leaders to be strong."

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who supports a balanced budget amendment, said he would not support an increase in the debt ceiling unless it is tied to a package of deep spending cuts that does not include tax increases.

"Raising the debt ceiling alone -- which I've already voted against -- or with tax hikes does not solve the problem. This is a spending problem, not a revenue problem." Shimkus said in a statement to the Beacon. "If we can make significant reforms to our mandatory spending programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, I will carefully review the package."

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said: "To get deficit spending and our national debt under control, we need to do three things simultaneously: cut spending, increase revenues and have the courage to put everything on the table as we accomplish these tasks in a balanced and responsible way."

In a recent oped in the Beacon, Clay called for major cuts in the Pentagon budget as part of a wider deficit-reduction package that would call for about $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenues.

Clay wrote that "we have met our Republican colleagues more than half way in this painful process. We are even willing to discuss significant savings in Medicare and Medicaid as long as essential benefits for seniors and the most vulnerable are preserved."

He contended that many cuts can be made in the Pentagon budget and other domestic spending "without the misguided Republican cuts to food safety inspections and nutritional support for women and at-risk children." He also wants changes in the tax code, including "limiting the total value of deductions for wealthy taxpayers who earn more than $500,000 a year."

Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, told the Beacon that he wants deep cutbacks in spending and will oppose tax increases. "It would be very difficult to pass any sort of debt-resolution bill that has got tax increases in it." But he added: "People are starting to come to the table with some good ideas and with some rational thinking on how we can get ourselves out of this. We as Republicans are not opposed to working with the other side and find ways to make this happen."

Luetkemeyer, who has a background in banking and bank regulation, said that it is unclear exactly what would happen if Congress fails to act by the Aug. 2 deadline. "It would hurt us in the financial markets" if the debt ceiling is not increased by a certain point, he said. "But it would not be a death blow to us, from the standpoint that we'll still have revenues coming in, and everybody knows that we are working on getting our budgets and deficits under control." He said that, if nation's credit rating is downgraded, interest rates would likely increase as debt is refinanced.

Luetkemeyer said the Defense Department's budget should not be "a sacred cow that we can't go after. But we have to be very careful about not cutting important parts of the defense budget that protect and fund our troops."

"Nothing is set in stone" in terms of what should be cut from the federal budget, he said. "We're just trying to work through -- on a department by department basis -- and try to find areas that we can cut while still maintaining the programs and services that people want and need."

Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, did not respond to a Beacon request for his position on the deficit-reduction and debt-ceiling debate. Last month, he was quoted as saying that he thinks it is possible to reach a balanced budget again with some sacrifices. "Everything should be on the table except Social Security and Medicare," he was quoted as telling the Daily Republican, in Marion, Ill.

In an oped in the Beacon, Costello said he wanted a faster pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and he has opposed further military involvement against Libyan forces.

Costello was one of 72 House Democrats who voted for an earlier version of the Balanced Budget Amendment that passed the House in January 1995 as part of the Republican "Contract with America." That amendment, which failed by one vote in the Senate, was less draconian than the current House version.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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