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As economy reels, Kirk calls on Congress and 'super committee' to get to work

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2011 - WASHINGTON - In the midst of volatile stock-market swings and international questions about the U.S. government's ability to act, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., says it is time for members of Congress to scuttle their vacation plans and get back to work.

The first order of business, he suggests, would be for the new "super committee" -- whose final members were announced Thursday -- to start holding hearings and trying to agree on a deficit-reduction plan. While some analysts doubt whether the new panel will be able to reach a deal, Kirk told the Beacon he was "encouraged" that some lawmakers on the committee might be open to a bipartisan compromise.

"The American people, [financial] markets and our allies would be reassured if Congress canceled its August break and the joint committee began work next Monday," Kirk said Thursday. He said the panel should seek "testimony by the Gang of Six senators," including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who proposed a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan last month.

Neither Durbin nor any other of the "Gang of Six" senators are members of the new committee -- officially, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction -- whose dozen members are charged under this month's debt-ceiling legislation to suggest a plan by Thanksgiving to reduce deficits by $1.2 trillion in a second stage.

And while Kirk suggests that stock markets might be calmed if Congress would get cracking soon on the next phase of deficit reduction, President Barack Obama said Thursday that he was unlikely to call lawmakers back to Washington because "the last thing we need is Congress spending more time arguing in D.C." That echoed surveys showing that most Americans are tired of partisan bickering on Capitol Hill.

Whether Congress returns soon or at the end of its scheduled August recess, the bickering likely will return in microcosm among the disparate members of the new "Gang of 12" when they tackle their difficult task. None of them is from Missouri or Illinois, but lawmakers from the two states have plenty to say about their mission.

"I just hope everybody who's selected does not see compromise as an evil concept," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who like most congressional Democrats wants a "balanced" compromise that avoids benefit cuts.

Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat and a member of both the "Gang of Six" and last fall's deficit-reduction commission, said last week's downgrade of the U.S. credit rating by Standard & Poor's "underscores the need for a balanced, bipartisan and comprehensive solution to the problem."

In a statement, Durbin said the new super committee's work "will be incredibly important and must balance spending cuts with revenue increases." He added that "until we agree that bipartisan leadership is the only path forward, our economy and America's faith in its leaders will continue to be at risk of downgrade."

While some observers had suggested that Durbin would be a logical choice for the super committee, Senate Majority Leaders Harry Reid, D-Nev., said earlier this week that he purposely did not select any "Gang of Six" members because he wanted senators who would bring a fresh approach to the negotiation table.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has not yet commented on the committee's members, but he said earlier this month that the panel "creates a real opportunity to deal with some of the big issues that Washington has a hard time dealing with." He added: "The right time to deal with difficult problems is when you have divided government."

U.S. House members from the region expressed a general feeling that the House Democrats and Republicans on the panel would represent the consensus positions of their respective caucuses.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said Thursday the three House Democrats selected Thursday "represent the core values and broad constituencies that make up the House Democratic Caucus." In a statement to the Beacon, Clay said he has "no doubt that they will advocate for a balanced and responsible deficit reduction package that cuts spending, increases revenue, and puts everything on the table in an honest and transparent way."

Added Clay: "My hope is that Congress' shared responsibility for putting our fiscal house in order and a bipartisan spirit of common sense will prevail."

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said that the committee members have "big work ahead" of them. In a statement, he said many people in his Illinois district have told him they want the special committee to avoid tax increases as part of a deal.

"Nothing in the agreement requires, encourages or even suggests a tax increase," Shimkus said. "Having avoided tax increases in this deal, I and a majority of my colleagues in the House remain opposed to raising taxes."

Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said he would encourage the committee "to take a balanced approach to reducing our debt that includes both cuts and new revenues." In a statement, he said "the president has assured us he would use his veto authority to stop attempts to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans unless other revenue-producing tax reform measures are agreed to."

Kirk Sees More Emphasis on Entitlements Than Taxes

While the hot-button issue on deficit reduction is taxes, Kirk told the Beacon that he foresees more emphasis on entitlement reform. "I think the committee will largely focus on entitlement spending reform, with possibly some very limited tax provisions."

Kirk said there may be a push for a tax change that would "repatriate profits of American multinational corporations that have been kept overseas because of high U.S. tax rates, and some smaller tax reforms." But he said he suspects that "the tax reform agenda of the committee is going to be quite limited."

Ideally, Kirk said, Congress eventually will tackle the "big issue" of a tax overhaul in a way that will gain centrist support. "I am against raising tax rates, but I am very much for a reform that would [eliminate tax breaks and loopholes] and drop the top rate from 39 to 29 percent," Kirk said. "Under that plan, you still generate revenues to lower the deficit, but I think that a 29 percent top rate is so attractive for small businesses that it's worth doing."

While some Republican groups have criticized the House Democrats on the panel and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., as unlikely to budge on any significant reforms of entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, Kirk said he thinks there may be some room for compromise.

"I'm encouraged by the appointments," Kirk told the Beacon. "Because some of the members, both Republicans and Democrats, could actually reach across the aisle to come to a bipartisan agreement." For example, he said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, has "pretty centrist instincts," as does Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Kirk said another reason for optimism is that the special committee "has substantial powers" -- to bring its recommendations directly to a vote in the Senate in December, without delays or amendments and requiring only 51 votes for approval. (Most controversial legislation would require a 60-vote margin to stop a Senate filibuster.)

"We have placed special confidence in these 12 members because they have extraordinary procedural powers," Kirk said.

Kirk said, however, that he was unsure if the threat of across-the-board automatic cuts if the deficit committee deadlocks would be deep enough to prevent Democratic tactics to deadlock the panel. Because automatic cuts would not take effect until January 2013, he said, "that may give [Democratic leaders] the unfortunate power to call on their members to deadlock the [super] committee -- and try to 'fix' everything later, after the election, if the president won again."

But Kirk added: "The problem with that theory is that the president's re-election chances are now falling pretty fast."

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

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