Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the first three appointees to a congressional super-committee charged with tackling the federal deficit, but the Democratic choices offer few signs that the panel can resolve the partisan stalemate that has only hardened in Congress amid the nation's worsening economic outlook.
Reid, D-Nev., tapped Sen. Patty Murray of Washington to co-chair the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, and also named Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Republicans have until next week to name their choices, but are expected to do so sooner.
The work of the 12-member committee has taken on new urgency after Standards & Poor's, one of three main credit rating agencies, last week downgraded U.S. debt, from AAA to AA+, for the first time in the nation's history.
S&P cited the political "brinksmanship" in Washington and the seeming inability of the political system to seriously tackle deficit reform as key reasons for the historic downgrade.
The fledgling congressional committee has three months to recommend $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade - a goal that eluded congressional negotiators during prolonged debates during the recent debt ceiling fight.
"As the events of the past week have made clear, the world is watching the work of this committee," Reid said in a statement on Tuesday. He praised the three senators and said "their legislative accomplishments are matched only by their records of forging strong bonds with their Republican colleagues."
But the establishment of the committee - six Democrats and six Republicans - has prompted only further skepticism that Washington lawmakers will be able to forge a compromise on the difficult issues of tax revenue and entitlement reform that eluded past negotiations.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who will appoint the other co-chair, told rank-and-file Republican lawmakers on Tuesday he would be announcing the three GOP House choices "in the coming days."
"You can be confident the people I select to represent our conference will be people of courage who understand the gravity of this situation and are committed to doing what needs to be done," Boehner told lawmakers during a conference call, according to aides.
The committee of six senators and six House members must make recommendations by Nov. 23 for a vote in Congress by year's end.
But neither political party has shown interest in compromising. Republicans have refused to discuss new taxes, and Democrats will not consider major changes to Medicare or Social Security unless more revenue is part of the deal.
The initial Democratic choices do not appear to change that dynamic. Murray, the No. 4 Democratic leader in the Senate, also chairs the campaign arm for 2012, and will be watchful for proposals that help or hurt her candidates' chances in the coming election. Kerry recently showed a partisan streak by blaming the downgrade on "tea party" conservatives.
Noticeably absent from Reid's selections was Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat. He led the "Gang of Six" bipartisan senators who worked on a sweeping deficit reduction package and has expressed a willingness to compromise on Medicare, Social Security or other entitlement spending.
But GOP leaders are also dug in, shifting blame for the downgrade to Democrats and continuing to reject taxes as part of any proposal. "The president and the Democratic leadership in Washington are trying to blame the tea party, because they know this downgrade is on (the Democrats)," Boehner said.
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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