Transcript: Congress Returns, Seeking Consensus On ‘Super Committee’

Aug 31, 2011

With the summer recess ending, Jackie Judd talks to KHN’s Mary Agnes Carey about the staffing and makeup of the deficit panel and what to expect in the coming months. The "super committee" may take a closer look reining Medicare costs in through reforming Medigap plans and provider payments to cut the deficit.

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JACKIE JUDD: Good Day, This is Health on the Hill. I’m Jackie Judd.  Congress returns from its summer break after Labor Day and all eyes will be on a dozen lawmakers - the six Senators and the six Congressmen who will serve on the so-called “super committee.” Their charge is to identify at least 1.2 trillion dollars in budget savings over a ten year period. Here to discuss what’s ahead is senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, Mary Agnes Carey.  Welcome back, Mary Agnes.


JACKIE JUDD: Let’s talk the nuts and bolts of the committee first.  Just recently, a staff director was named, Mark Prater, who is a senior aide on the Senate Finance Committee.  He’s been there for many years.  What do you know about him?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Mark is fantastic.  I think it’s a great pick for the committee.  He has deep experience in tax issues, and as we know, the Senate Finance Committee does a lot on taxes and entitlements.  So the thought is this is a signal that these are two areas that the super committee will be looking at for savings and changes, that sort of thing.  Mark is the Chief Tax Council to the Republicans, but he’s trusted on both sides.  He’s viewed as someone who works across the aisle and there’s great respect for him.

JACKIE JUDD: Let’s talk about what’s happening in the next couple of weeks.  By law, they need to meet by September 16th at the very latest.  Is there any sense yet of the committee’s schedule, both public and private?

MARY AGNES CAREY: There isn’t yet.  Republicans did meet yesterday, privately, behind closed doors.  Democrats are on a conference call today [Aug. 31]. I think with the announcement here of the staff director, you’ll see a schedule come out fairly soon.  And Congress does return to town now after the August break, so I expect we’ll see a schedule and movement fairly quickly.

JACKIE JUDD: And I know this is jumping the gun a little, but, when it comes time for votes, do they need unanimous votes, simple majority to get something out of committee?

MARY AGNES CAREY: It’s a simple majority, but the thought here is the broader base of support they could build on the super committee the greater chance this would have of passing the House or the Senate. So while all you really need is one member of the other side to vote perhaps with one united party on the super committee, the thought is:  Let’s not hit seven, could we get eight, could we get nine or higher?

JACKIE JUDD:  During the Labor Day recess, there were many, many articles written, many words spoken about who these 12 are. In your view, having covered Capitol Hill for as long as you have, who begins to emerge as the potential consensus builders?

MARY AGNES CAREY:  Lots of focus on Rob Portman, he’s now a Republican senator from Ohio, previously within the House of Representatives, on the Ways and Means Committee, lots of experience with taxes and entitlements. In the George Bush administration, he also was trade representative and he was head of the Office of Management and Budget. He had to move a budget through a divided Congress. There’s a lot of thought that he could be a potential dealmaker.

Speaking of the Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp, who is the current chair of that in the House, in a recent interview, he didn’t rule out tax increases as a possible option for the super committee. He’s viewed as a possible consensus builder. And in the Senate, Max Baucus, who’s head of the Finance Committee, has a long reputation of working with Democrats and Republicans on tax issues, on entitlement issues, so he could be a dealmaker as well.

JACKIE JUDD:  And when you put all of this together: A now new staff director, the potential consensus builders, the makeup of the committee, what might you divine might be done to the programs that our audience is most interested in? The health care programs: Medicare, Medicaid?

MARY AGNES CAREY:  There will be a close look at Medicare, I think.  You have had several panels over the last year talk about things like, should we increase the eligibility age over time for Medicare?  Should we look at the deductible for Part A and Part B and combine them into one?  Should we make changes in Medigap, the supplemental insurance in Medicare?  Should we change provider payments?  You’re already seeing advertising campaigns from home health and from hospitals and other sectors of Medicare providers.  Should they look at those?  Of course, the providers don’t want any more cuts.   

But I think they’ll take a really broad look at Medicare, not so much Medicaid, but I think Medicare, they will.

JACKIE JUDD:  And a final question:  What is your sense of what role the White House will be playing in this?  For example:  The talks that Vice President Biden started down this road of deficit reduction.  Will those discussions play a part in these new negotiations in the super committee?

MARY AGNES CAREY:  Absolutely.  Those talks produced a list of potential cuts.  They’ll be viewed.

The president was not shy over the summer about stepping up and saying he wanted a deal, he wanted a deal of a certain size.  And I think that he’ll do that again.  The super committee will look at that.  They may look at the downgrade from Standard & Poor's.  They may look at the 82 percent disapproval rating from the public of Congress.  As pressure as factors in their negotiations to, hopefully, help them get a deal. 

JACKIE JUDD:  If there is to be a deal, by the end of November, just before Thanksgiving, right?

MARY AGNES CAREY:  Before Thanksgiving they would have to report, the super committee, but Congress would have to vote on that by Christmas.

JACKIE JUDD:  Thanks so much.  Good to be back with you, Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News.


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