WASHINGTON — In Congress, lawmakers from both parties have begun pushing bipartisan plans aimed at cutting federal spending, efforts that are proceeding slowly — but they are proceeding.
"As I left my office, some of my staff said, 'Good luck walking that plank,' said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "This is politically risky. This is like saying no when you're a parent."
Tuesday she joined Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. and others to outline a plan to mandate sharply reduced spending over 10 years.
It was the third time in recent days that budget-writers have made serious efforts to promote bipartisan dialogue on budget cuts.
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., are urging changes in the budget process that would give lawmakers two years, instead of the current 12 months, to write a budget. Budget watchdogs like the idea, saying it would lead to more thoughtful decision-making.
And Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Tuesday urged the major players to come together face to face.
"I would much prefer that there would be a summit with the White House, the congressional leaders — Republican and Democrat, House and Senate . . . sit down and craft a long-term plan to get us back on track," he said. "I think that would be the best way to proceed because I think it is very important this be done before we get into a debate on the debt-limit extension."
Congress will consider soon whether to raise the current $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, which could be reached as soon as the end of next month. Republicans have threatened to hold the effort to raise the debt ceiling hostage until they've forced agreement on deep spending cuts — a tactic the Obama administration warns could panic financial markets.
Neither congressional leaders nor the White House have endorsed any specific paths to deficit reduction.
"We're having serious talks all the time (about deficit reduction)," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Asked what Republicans he's talking to, Reid mentioned a conversation with Conrad, a Democrat.
"He came to me because he had a conversation with a couple Republicans," Reid said.
The McCaskill bill would cap all spending — including Medicare and Social Security — at 20.6 percent of Gross Domestic Product, in line with the 40-year spending average. Spending currently averages about 24.7 percent of GDP.
The plan would mandate a "glide path" to the lower figure, so the cuts wouldn't jolt the economy. It would take effect in 2013, "giving us time to redesign the entitlement programs, especially Medicare and Social Security," Corker said.
If the 20.6 percent of GDP goal isn't met, the White House would be required to make "evenly distributed, simultaneous cuts throughout the federal budget."
The political obstacles are clear.
"People should leave Social Security alone," Reid said, echoing the views of strong constituency groups who look to Democrats to protect the hallowed program.
Conrad argued that the McCaskill-Corker plan "doesn't solve the problem," because it doesn't consider raising taxes.
But the McCaskill-Corker plan is at least an attempt to create the kind of bipartisan solution that President Barack Obama called for in his State of the Union address, analysts said, even though he's done little to promote it.
Some sort of consensus is crucial, since Republicans comfortably control the House of Representatives and Democrats control 53 of the Senate's 100 seats. House Republicans want to cut at least $60 billion from this year's budget; more conservative members have proposed an $80 billion savings, including deep cuts in a long list of programs popular with Democrats.
"This is a period in which legislators are struggling with procedural fixes to a policy problem," said Steven Smith, a former congressional aide who teaches political science at Washington University in St. Louis. "The cynic would say, "Why don't you just pass a budget instead of putting in procedural fixes?'
"But the response is: 'We need to discipline ourselves and future Congresses. Let's put in place procedures that will be difficult to overcome by the next Congress and the next, and the next president.'"
Agreeing on specific cuts will be difficult politically. For instance, conservative Republicans are offering a proposal that would cut $2.5 trillion over 10 years, eliminating or dramatically cutting funds for programs such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, Amtrak, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and others.
"Anybody who thinks that's going to happen, I've got a tutu you need to wear down the hall tomorrow," McCaskill. "That's a ridiculous proposal. That's impossible to do."
And probably impossible to get through the Senate. But getting the two parties to agree will take enormous political risk.
"If this bill is distorted and twisted," said McCaskill, who could face a tough re-election next year. "it could cost me my Senate seat."
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