Jury still out on deficit-reduction group

It's unclear what to expect from the group of lawmakers, led by Vice President Joe Biden, that is tasked with formulating a deficit-reduction plan, given its partisan makeup and the advanced talks of the "Gang of Six" in the Senate, budget experts said on Wednesday.

"What I see is a group that probably hasn't been picked for its ability to come together and hash out a serious, viable plan," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

MacGuineas's comments came after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday appointed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., respectively, to represent them in deficit-reduction negotiations that President Obama called for last week.

Obama asked congressional leaders from both parties to name up to four lawmakers as negotiators. But Republican leaders -- who have been skeptical that the Biden group would yield results -- named just one apiece.

Democrats named just two each. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tapped Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has named Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, D-S.C., and Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

Obama charged Biden with leading the bipartisan talks and is pushing the participants to develop a plan by the end of June. The first group meeting is scheduled for May 5.

"I am not really sure how [the Biden group] plays into it; I think we will have to see," MacGuineas said. "I think when you get a bunch of people around the table who want to come up with a deal, it is far more likely to succeed than a bunch of people where it is not as clear that they would be able to come to an agreement."

MacGuineas was alluding to the Gang of Six, which consists of Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. The group has been working on producing a compromise plan modeled on recommendations put forward in December by the commission that Obama established, led by Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson. The group, which also included the six senators, recommended spending cuts along with reform of the tax code and entitlement programs.

It is unclear when the gang will be ready to unveil its legislation, or if it will be part of the Senate's fiscal 2012 budget resolution that Conrad, the Budget Committee chairman, has been considering. Conrad is expected to produce a resolution after the spring recess.

"I still think we have to see what the Gang of Six does," MacGuineas said. "I think there is a natural progression: There was a presidentially appointed commission; it came up with a plan that was seen as solid. A group of senators took it upon themselves to move that forward. The president then elevated the issue to a top-tier issue, which you only can do from the bully pulpit, and now we have to see how the group that he's appointed -- or in my mind, more likely the Gang of Six -- proceeds and what kind of momentum is built around that."

Ryan McConaghy, deputy director of the economic program at the centrist think tank Third Way, believes that the gang could help the Biden group get an agreement on deficit reduction, but only time will tell.

"The Gang of Six continues to be the bipartisan game in town. They have had meetings, and they are inching closer to potentially coming out with something," McConaghy said. "I think that this [Biden] group and the Gang of Six will probably work on parallel tracks. They may end up reinforcing each other's work."

McConaghy also noted that the Biden group was useful because it puts a deadline on the talks at the end of June, which could also put a deadline on the Gang.

"I think the main thing about this group is that the president has set a date certain on when he wants to see something done." McConaghy said. "In politics, just like anything else, deadline pressure hopefully creates real results."

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