Debt panel to test Kerry’s diplomacy

By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / August 22, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Senator John F. Kerry is no stranger to seemingly intractable diplomatic snarls. He flew to Islamabad to soothe tense Pakistani-US relations after the killing of Osama bin Laden. He walked the palace grounds of Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai to help persuade him to allow a runoff election in 2009. He flew to Sudan to assist in laying the groundwork for the country’s war-torn south to declare independence.

But Kerry’s appointment to a congressional committee charged with further cutting the deficit will require him to deploy his negotiating skills on a singularly domestic dilemma: finding a way to untangle the knot of partisanship and policy over federal spending.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work. It’s going to take compromise. I think the urgency of our economy is such that hopefully it will sink in to every member that the nation is waiting for a responsible set of choices,’’ the Massachusetts Democrat said in an interview last week, as prospects for a double-dip recession have been rising and markets tumbling.

Kerry is one of 12 members - six Democrats and six Republicans - of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. The panel is the product of torturous talks that eventually allowed the government to borrow more immediate funds in exchange for almost $1 trillion in long-term budget cuts. The committee is not expected to hold its first meeting until Congress reconvenes after Labor Day.

The pressure on the committee will be high, its prospects for success significantly lower. The group has until Nov. 23 to recommend at least $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction measures, and Congress must approve the plan by Christmas. If it fails, further long-term cuts up to $1.2 trillion would begin in 2013, split between defense and non-defense spending.

Kerry acknowledges that the committee will be in the eye of a lobbying hurricane over what to cut and what to spare that will “come from everywhere in the United States of America.’’ Kerry said he plans to have many conversations, including with business leaders in Massachusetts, and expects to leave his door open to all viewpoints.

“There will be enormous pressures from various quarters, and our job is to pick through that and do what’s in the best interests of the country,’’ he said.

One of his first calls was to Alan K. Simpson, the former GOP senator from Wyoming who last fall led a presidential debt commission bearing his name. Simpson said that Kerry always impressed him by not “hiding under the rug’’ for tough votes.

“He’s serious business, and he knows foreign policy, he knows domestic policy. He’s a hell of a hand, as we say in Wyoming,’’ Simpson said.

He has also sought advice from organized labor, and current and former members of Congress. Among them are members of the so-called Gang of Six, senators who attempted to create a framework for long-term cuts and a tax overhaul this spring, and former Senator Pete V. Domenici, a Republican of New Mexico who co-authored another debt reduction plan.

Some speculated that Kerry could be a bridge-builder who could prevent a 6-6 partisan deadlock. Senator Max Baucus of Montana is considered a more conservative Democrat, but others are viewed as being on Kerry’s left, such as Representatives Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Xavier Becerra of California.

Most of the Republicans are considered deeply conservative, and GOP chair Jeb Hensarling, a Texas representative, earned a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union last year. Each Republican has signed a pledge to work against any higher taxes.

“I think John has developed into a skilled and effective negotiator and knows the issues well,’’ said George J. Mitchell, who worked with Kerry as a senator from Maine.

Kerry downplays the possibility he could play an outsized role on the committee, saying that every member “carries equal responsibility, equal weight.’’ But he also made clear that he’s ready to deal.

“I can guarantee you, I’m prepared to make some tough choices,’’ he said. “I wait with anticipation to see how folks on the other side of the aisle and other places philosophically and politically come to the table with an equal determination to make the tough choices.’’

Some liberal groups aren’t happy about what they’ve heard so far. Robert L. Borosage, president of the Campaign for America’s Future, said Kerry is misreading the problems in the economy, and changes he appears to support for some programs, such as raising the eligibility age for Medicare, ought to be anathema to Democrats.

“I don’t think liberals feel that way; I think they feel his views are wrong-headed and dangerous,’’ he said.

A Kerry spokeswoman dismissed that view in an e-mail, writing that “it’s a little curious to see these folks question the views and values of someone often rated the Senate’s most liberal member. John Kerry will just keep his head down and do his job.’’

To some, Kerry seemed ill-suited to the committee. Although he has extensive foreign policy credentials, he’s not seen as someone who immerses himself deeply in details of budgeting, despite his having a seat on the Senate Finance Committee.

He wasn’t among the Gang of Six, or Simpson’s commission. And he isn’t always the diplomat. After Standard & Poor’s lowered the US credit rating, Kerry was quick to point a finger, calling it the “Tea Party downgrade.’’

Yet he had expressed a willingness to be on the committee, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid obliged. The appointment probably sprang from unique attributes, some obvious, some not. As a former presidential candidate, he has a broad grasp of policy, as well as the imprimatur of party leadership. In addition to his diplomatic skills, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is familiar with today’s international debt crisis and the links between the world’s financial systems. He’s also close to the White House.

After his 1984 election, he entered the Senate with admiration from liberals and disdain from conservatives for his earlier Vietnam War protests. Yet even in his early years, Kerry showed a willingness to embrace deficit reduction efforts unpopular with his party. During an episode reminiscent of the problems today, Kerry ruffled fellow Democrats by cosponsoring a 1985 deficit reduction measure known as Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, which eventually passed with bipartisan support.

More recent examples also illustrate his willingness to breach political lines. In late 2010, Kerry’s negotiations with Senator Jon L. Kyl of Arizona, the minority whip, over the New START nuclear arms treaty helped break a deadlock over the pact. Kyl is also a debt committee member.

“His relationship with Senator Kyl may be key. Kyl will be a major player,’’ said Roger B. Porter, a professor of business and government at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who served in both the Reagan and Ford administrations.

The stakes are high, the timeline short, and the work is “dangerous business’’ for committee members, said Richard Parker, an economist and a public policy lecturer at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. With both parties’ grassroots angry with leaders right now, compromisers are in a difficult position.

“It’s political poison with the general public to be the man in the middle at this point,’’ he said.

Theo Emery can be reached at