Proposed Debt Deal Relies On 'Gang Of 12'

The keys to the debt deal the president has made with congressional committees involve a new deficit-cutting super-committee of 12 members of Congress — and a draconian mechanism to cut spending if the 12 cannot.

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President Obama is defending a last-minute deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling. Some Democrats have already come out strongly against it. They're angry because it includes none of the new tax revenues the president said he wanted, to balance the cuts in government spending. But the White House insists there is still a chance for additional tax revenue.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports on just how that could happen.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama's hopes for a grand bargain on the deficit - in which Democrats would agree to rein in Medicare spending, and the GOP would agree to increase tax revenue - fell apart when House Speaker John Boehner was unable to sell the idea to his fellow Republicans.

As a result, the deal now on the table makes only incremental cuts to the deficit, all of them on the spending side. Still, White House spokesman Jay Carney says a scaled-down version of the grand bargain could still emerge from this process. The deal sets up a bipartisan congressional committee to find other ways to curb the deficit. Its goal is to identify $1.5 trillion worth of savings by Thanksgiving.

JAY CARNEY: And everything is on the table for that committee - entitlement reform and tax reform. And let's be clear, the president thinks that the biggest possible overall accomplishment, in terms of deficit reduction, is a desirable goal, as long as it's balanced.

HORSLEY: Much of the negotiation these last few days has been over what kind of stick to use to make sure the committee actually comes up with a plan, and that Congress actually passes it. The White House was adamant that Republicans cannot use the threat of default again.

Instead, Carney says, failure by either the committee or Congress to act would trigger automatic spending cuts, including cuts to Medicare that Democrats don't want, and cuts in the Pentagon budget that Republicans don't want.

CARNEY: The whole purpose of a trigger is that nobody wants to pull it.

HORSLEY: In effect, this plan relies on a 12-person committee - half Democrats, half Republicans - to make the tough decisions on deficit reduction that Congress as a whole has been unable to.

SARAH BINDER: We don't have a lot of successful examples of where Congress has designed a process that, in fact, has worked.

HORSLEY: Congressional scholar Sarah Binder, of George Washington University, says one instance where this method worked was the commission on closing unneeded military bases. To overcome parochial interest, the base closing list was presented as a complete package, and Congress could only vote yes or no.

A similar system is planned for the deficit committee. Binder says that would avoid the threat of a Senate filibuster or sabotage by the House Rules Committee, but only if a majority of committee members can actually come to an agreement.

BINDER: Much is riding on who the Senate minority leader and the speaker appoint as their Republicans to the joint committee. You need seven votes to report. Let's say six Democrats lined up behind a package that includes revenues. Would that one Republican prefer a package with revenues? Or in fact would they prefer the pain of defense cuts? And we can certainly see it going either way.

HORSLEY: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to appoint strong anti-tax members to the committee. His Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, said today he wants members whose deficit-reduction ideas are not set in stone.

Senator HARRY REID: Well, I just think we have to go into this with people with their eyes wide open, willing to make difficult choices but yet understand the political reality of the world we are in.

HORSLEY: That reality is evolving. Binder says if the choice comes down to increased tax revenue or decreased Pentagon spending, you could see some new cracks in the traditional Republican coalition.

BINDER: Older Republican, long-term members may be more committed to defense spending than some of the newer ones, who come in clearly committed not to raising taxes. That, again, is one of these issues that's going to raise its ugly head come winter.

HORSLEY: Carney says the White House wants committee members who are serious about deficit reduction and about finding consensus - something that's eluded the Congress thus far.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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