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DAVID GREENE, Host:

A downgrade of American's credit rating is unprecedented, but the political gridlock that helped bring it on, not such an old story.

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BOB KERREY: We function better when there's a crisis. So maybe we should just wait. Let's wait 20 years. Let's wait 15 years.

GREENE: This tape, it's from 1994, then Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey.

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KERREY: Mañana satisfies us. My hope is that at some point, that mañana is not satisfactory.

GREENE: As you can hear, Kerrey back then was frustrated with a special commission he was working on, one appointed to come up with a plan for big cuts in government spending. It was called the Kerrey-Danforth Commission. And three years later, then Republican Senator John Danforth, Kerrey's partner in the effort, called it a total waste of time.

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JOHN DANFORTH: I mean, it was a (unintelligible) year as far as the people who were involved in it. We came up with a nice report and nice four-color charts, but that was it. But...

GREENE: You probably know what we're getting at here. Last week, as part of the debt ceiling deal, Congress created a committee that will once again try to come up with a plan for big cuts to the federal budget. That plan might be the best shot the U.S. has at getting its credit rating upgraded again.

But unlike past congressional commissions, lawmakers call this one a supercommittee. George Washington University political scientist Sarah Binder says there's a reason why.

SARAH BINDER: That is, if they can agree by majority vote to report out a package of savings, then the package is essentially guaranteed an up or down vote on the House and Senate floors. And that is highly unusual.

GREENE: So that's one important difference. Most congressional commissions aren't actually writing laws. They're writing recommendations, ones that Congress is free to ignore. This time, if Congress ignores the committee's recommendations and doesn't pass them, by early next year, by law, major cuts will be made automatically to a lot of popular government programs.

BINDER: Exactly.

GREENE: And one more thing, political scientist Sarah Binder says...

BINDER: Sometimes, we look at all these commissions and committees and say, well, they don't have a great track record.

GREENE: It's all about context.

BINDER: Senator Kerrey's point about a crisis - I mean, early 1990s, right, we do have the economy starting to grow, so turn around there. And as he said, look, without a crisis, perhaps it's much harder for us to reach agreement.

GREENE: Agreement in the coming months might hinge on how big a crisis Washington believes it's staring at today.

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