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Challenge Could Overwhelm Congressional Super-Committee

Growing budget puts deficit-cutting target at risk

"What are the odds that nine years from now — even next year — they are going to stick to any of this stuff?" DeHaven says.

Congress created incentives for enacting the super-committee's proposals by setting up cuts that would be automatically triggered if the legislative branch balks at the panel's proposals. The automatic cuts include the security spending dear to Republicans and the domestic spending and Medicare that Democrats don't want to see cut.

But Franc predicts that if those automatic cuts are triggered, lobbyists will fight them, and Congress could easily waive any or all reductions. "They've set in place forces that will ensure the end result is zero."

Franc and others point out that Congress has often swept nettlesome problems under the rug. Medicare payment levels to doctors that were supposed to be slashed after a 1997 balanced budget agreement, for instance, have been saved year after year by Congress.

"They turn off lots of things," says Bixby, who warns that Congress will breed political cynicism if it doesn't stick to the cuts it promised.

If the automatic cuts do take place, they will compound that issue when it comes up again at the end of the year. Without a so-called doc fix, doctors would see their payments for Medicare patients reduced by about 30 percent.

Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, says everyone agrees that Medicare needs to be changed, but nothing happens.

He'd like to see Congress adopt an amendment to the Constitution to require a balanced federal budget as a way to force spending to stay in line. He is worried that, instead, Congress will pass spending cuts that are more creative accounting than real attacks on the nation's deficit.

Bixby wonders whether Congress is getting the message. "The markets and the public are pretty much telling them: Do something."

Tamara Lytle is a veteran Washington reporter.

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