Senate Faces Key Fiscal Votes This Week

The Senate will vote this week on key fiscal measures as it attempts to increase the nation’s debt ceiling. The debt limit is expected to be reached next month absent action by legislators to increase it.

On Tuesday Senators will vote on an amendment by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Ranking Member Judd Gregg (R-NH) to create a Bipartisan Task Force for Responsible Fiscal Action that would offer recommendations to improve the long-term fiscal condition of the country. The panel would be empowered to propose tax increases and cuts in entitlement spending. Its proposals would be subject to an up-or-down vote in Congress after the mid-term elections.

Although the Conrad-Gregg commission plan has bipartisan support, it also faces opposition from special interests on both sides of the political spectrum. Groups like AARP oppose it because they are against reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits while organizations like Americans for Tax Reform fear tax increases.

Underscoring the sway of such interests in Congress, just before the vote on the Conrad-Gregg commission amendment, the Senate will vote on an amendment from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) to exempt any changes to Social Security recommended by such a commission from being considered under a fast-track process. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is expected to offer an alternative proposal with a commission that only considers spending cuts, not tax increases. The politics surrounding the upcoming fiscal commission vote serves to highlight the need for a special process that confronts the nation’s fiscal challenges.

On Saturday President Obama officially endorsed the Conrad-Gregg proposal. Moderate Democrats in the Senate had been pressuring him to publicly support the idea. The presidential support may not improve prospects for the vote on Tuesday, but may make it easier for the moderate Democrats to support Obama’s preferred approach, a commission created by the White House, if the Conrad-Gregg amendment fails to garner the 60 votes needed for approval.

After Tuesday’s votes, several more amendments await Senate consideration. On Friday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) offered an amendment to reinstate statutory pay-as-you-go (paygo) rules. Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) have an amendment instituting discretionary spending caps and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is sponsoring an amendment rescinding at least $120 billion in federal spending. Last week an amendment from Senator John Thune (R-SD) that would have ended the TARP program and mandated unused TARP funds go towards reducing the debt fell short of the 60 vote threshold, garnering 53 votes.

The debt limit debate has become politically charged as voters signal their frustration with mounting federal budget deficits and national debt. The Democratic leadership in Congress is trying to raise the limit enough to avoid further action until after the midterm elections while Republican leaders would like to force a series of debt limit votes throughout the year and use each vote as an opportunity to paint Democrats as fiscally reckless. The White House would like to point to some concrete steps on the debt ahead of the president’s State of the Union address Wednesday night and the release of its budget proposal on February 1. The Senate will consider raising the limit a record $1.9 trillion to $14.3 trillion.

CRFB supports a budget commission that places all options for stabilizing the debt on the table, as well as paygo rules without exemptions (except for emergency spending) and discretionary spending caps. Now is the time for developing a credible fiscal plan, not for political posturing and finger-pointing.