Senators propose group to focus on looming fiscal mess

Goal is to come up with solutions to problems such as the cost of providing benefits to retiring baby boomers.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and ranking member Judd Gregg, R-N.H., aim to form a bipartisan working group to tackle long-term fiscal challenges and propose parliamentary steps to boost passage of the politically risky ideas.

All sides agree that the fiscal outlook is bleak, and unless all sides agree to take the political hit, little will be accomplished. Under the proposal, the legislative package would be considered under expedited rules in both chambers and require veto-proof supermajority votes in both chambers.

At a panel hearing Thursday, Conrad and Gregg said the group would comprise representatives from the White House as well as bipartisan House and Senate leadership. The goal is to come up with solutions to problems such as the cost of providing benefits to the roughly 80 million baby boomers who are beginning to retire.

Conrad said he hoped the group would examine all budgetary challenges brought on by entitlement spending but also the levels of tax revenue needed to support national commitments. "Not limited to Medicare and Social Security, but including the imbalances between projected revenue and expenditure that we're getting," he said.

Added Gregg: "The key to the procedure is that it be unquestionably bipartisan, that nobody feels they're being gamed, that the American people feel that when the procedure is concluded and the policy is proposed, it has been reached in a way that is totally fair."

The package would then be allotted "fast-track" privileges restricting amendments, which Conrad acknowledged would be difficult because offering amendments is a senator's "fundamental right."

The concept of a working group to devise a long-term budget plan, rather than a commission, is gaining support on both sides of the aisle. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told CongressDaily in an interview Wednesday he would support giving Conrad and Gregg the opportunity to work out a bipartisan plan, contingent on White House involvement.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., a hawk on spending issues, said he agreed with it as well. "Absolutely, if you leave it up to the normal political process, you'll never get it done. So, it needs to have some outside-the-box thinking like that," he said.

The challenges to developing such a plan are substantial, and Republicans and Democrats remain at odds on whether to focus more on spending or revenues. At the hearing Thursday, Government Accountability Office Comptroller David Walker said it would have to be a multipart solution but indicated entitlement spending was the more immediate problem.

"If there is one thing that is going to bankrupt America, it's health care," Walker said, adding that the Medicare prescription drug benefit alone has added $8 trillion in government obligations, more than all of Social Security over the past six years. He indicated Congress should continue to restrain discretionary spending and perhaps apply pay/go rules to existing entitlements, not just new programs.

He referred to the idea as a "reconsideration trigger" requiring Congress to renew such programs, similar to what Gregg has suggested. But Walker did not discount the need for more revenue, arguing that the historical norm of taxes amounting to 18 percent of gross domestic product will not be adequate to meet looming challenges.

"The numbers don't come close to working," he said.