GOP House Speaker John Boehner is sending to the Senate a bill setting up a House-Senate panel to tackle America's fiscal woes, the kind of special commission that set in motion steep defense cuts two years ago. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
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WASHINGTON — The House late Tuesday approved a measure that proposes a House-Senate panel to tackle America’s fiscal woes, the kind of special commission that set in motion steep defense cuts two years ago.
The chamber voted mostly along party lines, 224-197, to create the “Bicameral Working Group on Deficit Reduction and Economic Growth.” The proposed 20-lawmaker panel would comprise 10 members from each chamber and would be tasked with recommending discretionary spending cuts, “changes in the statutory limit on public debt” and identifying other spending cuts.
“We need to end this government shutdown and get on with the important business of growing our economy, providing fairness for all Americans under Obamacare, and controlling spending — but we can’t do that if president Obama and Senate Democrats won’t negotiate,” GOP House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement issued Tuesday evening.
“So tonight the House voted to create a formal, bipartisan, House-Senate working group to resolve our differences so we can reopen the government and address our debt,” Boehner said.
Boehner was referring to President Obama’s insistence that he will not negotiate over raising the nation’s borrowing limit, which now is a tandem issue with a spending measure to reopen the government.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the nation will reach its borrowing limit a week from Thursday.
Republicans want spending cuts and domestic entitlement program changes in return for a debt-ceiling increase. They say most modern presidents, including Obama twice, have negotiated over the borrowing limit.
Some Republicans and budget analysts have signaled defense cuts could be part of such a deal if Obama relents.
Senior House Democrats were quick to dismiss the idea of a new fiscal commission.
“There is no way we can get to that deal — a la Simpson-Bowles, Domenici-Rivlin, the Gang of Six, you name the group — in the next eight days,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday.
In a statement, the White House issued a veto threat of the House measure, saying it would set in place “nothing to solve the immediate, pressing obligations the Congress has to open the government and pay its bills.”
But during a Tuesday afternoon press conference at the White House, Obama seemed to give the idea some — if faint — life.
“I think Democrats in the Senate, in the House are prepared to talk about anything,” Obama said. “I’m prepared to talk about anything. [House Republicans] can design whatever formats they want.”
The president suggested he and Democratic leaders believe the GOP-proposed commission would be one-sided in its scope and focus.
“I don’t know why Democrats right now would agree to a format that takes off the table all the things they care about and is confined to the things that the Republicans care about,” Obama said.
But Obama called on Congress to get back to what’s known as “regular order” on Capitol Hill, meaning the process of the chambers’ budget and appropriations committees setting spending levels and doling out specific amounts to various agencies.
The president called that “a process that’s worked reasonably well for the last 50 years — I don’t know that we need to set up a new committee for a process like that to move forward.”
During Obama’s three-year standoff with conservative House Republicans over spending issues, the blue-ribbon commission idea has been tried before.
The so-called “supercommittee” was hailed as a panel of House and Senate experts and charged with coming up with a deficit-reduction plan both chambers could pass and Obama could sign.
But the panel failed to produce that kind of blueprint late in 2011, setting the stage for across-the-board sequestration cuts to non-exempt defense and domestic programs.
With House and Senate Republican defense hawks looking for a way to shield the Pentagon from new cuts under such a deal, one budget hawk said that is possible.
“There are plenty of ways to do that,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told Defense News on Tuesday. “Just look at the things that came out of the supercommittee, or Rivlin-Domenici. There’s plenty there.”