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Many suggestions but little time for debt panel

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ANDREW TAYLOR
October 15, 2011
— Conservative senators are urging the debt-cutting supercommittee to raise the eligibility age for Medicare and require many retirees to pay more. The top Senate Republican on defense is endorsing some of President Barack Obama's proposed benefit curbs for the military. Even farm state lawmakers are offering cuts to agriculture subsidies and food programs.

Friday's deadline for lawmakers to offer ideas to Congress' bipartisan 12-member panel brought out a flood of advice. Some lawmakers offered up sacred cows. Others just restated political talking points.


Whether it will help the supercommittee make actual progress remains to be seen.


What appears clear is that the fundamental disputes remain the same: Democrats and Republicans remain at loggerheads on taxes and proposals to cut benefit programs such as Medicare. Republicans are, so far, standing fast against tax increases; Democrats won't touch Medicare without them.


It's not at all certain that the panel, due to act by Nov. 23, will find success in reaching its goal of generating at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings over the coming decade. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that it won't.


"It's impossible to do it in the next month," said Joseph Minarik, research director for the private, business-led Committee for Economic Development, citing the technical complexities of crafting such a measure as well as the political challenges of enacting it. "Deficit reduction is doing things you don't want to do. The political pressures are awful."


Panel members, too, are hedging their bets.


"Whether we're able to overcome some of the obstacles is still unclear," panel member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told a Washington audience Friday morning.


Beyond the politically incendiary issues of taxes lies a minefield of other difficult topics, big and small.


The Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee — save for moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine and supercommittee member Jon Kyl of Arizona — leapt into the fray Friday with recommendations such as raising the Medicare retirement age for future beneficiaries and shifting costs to current retirees by reworking deductibles and copayments. They also suggest raising premiums for high-income retirees and tightening the screws on providers such as hospitals and nursing homes, particularly in high-spending areas of the country.


In one of the few bipartisan letters to the supercommittee, the Democratic chairman and top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee "with regret" proposed extending the current freeze on federal civilian workers' salaries for another year for $32 billion in 10-year savings, boosting the contribution civil servants must make to their pensions and curbing the government's use of private contractors by 15 percent.


Even bipartisanship won't head off tussles with some powerful interest groups. A major battle is already brewing over whether to make military service members pay more for their health care and to make military pensions less generous for future enlistees. In separate letters, Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain, chairman and top Republican respectively on the Senate Armed Services Committee said the panel should consider the administration's proposed cost curbs on military health benefits and pensions.


"We're fighting this," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which is encouraging its 2 million members to contact their lawmakers and argue against any changes in health and retirement benefits.


"Some in Washington want to make those who sacrifice and serve the most sacrifice more," Davis said. "It infuriates us when they talk about military benefit programs as entitlements. They're something you absolutely paid for upfront through your service and sacrifice to the country."


Another powerful interest group is the farm lobby, eager to head off cuts to agriculture subsidies. A bipartisan group of farm-state lawmakers is promising $23 billion in cuts to food and farm programs — but that's $10 billion less than proposed by the White House.


Another bipartisan proposal by the Senate Commerce Committee would produce $10 billion in revenue through auctioning portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to wireless companies. And the chairman and top Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee offered a plan to have Congress pass a two-year budget instead one-year plans.


Failure to come up with a plan would trigger across-the-board budget cuts of more than $1 trillion, shared evenly by defense and domestic programs. Defense hawks like McCain and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., promise to try to reverse any automatic defense cuts.


"I would be looking for anything that stops those triggers from kicking in," McKeon said Friday on Fox News.


Meanwhile, time is slipping. Some policy experts say it's impractical for the supercommittee, with its small staff and facing a Nov. 23 deadline, to tackle so many complex and controversial topics.


One option might be for the supercommittee to issue orders to regular congressional committees to fill in details next year.


That approach, often mentioned as an option for tax reform, has its flaws as well.


"They can do it, but will they? Do they want to tackle any of those subjects in what is going to be a tumultuous election year?" said Steve Bell, an economic analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former GOP Senate aide.


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Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Alan Fram contributed to this report.



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