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Where do we go from here?

Assuming that the flawed but necessary deal to lift the debt ceiling passes the Senate following the House’s approval Monday, the attention — and pressure — will shift to the new super-committee whose mandate is figuring out how to save $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion more. The first round of cuts, spread among domestic and military programs, will total $917 billion over the next 10 years, including savings from lower interest payments, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The second round will be the harder, but more promising, part.

The 12-member committee will be a strange congressional creature, divided equally between the House and Senate, and equally between Democrats and Republicans. It can act by majority vote, and its proposals will enjoy a procedural highway straight to the Senate and House floors. Once there, they would have to be voted on, could not be amended and — of enormous importance in the Senate — could pass by a simple majority. 

Nothing is off the committee’s table. In theory, it could recommend further cuts in discretionary spending; changes to entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security; and increases in tax revenue. In practice, achieving a majority promises to be excruciatingly difficult. The temptation for congressional leaders will be to name staunchly loyal and partisan members who will not dare stray from party orthodoxy: no tax increases for Republicans, no benefit cuts for Democrats. That would be disappointing, if not entirely surprising. This moment calls for the most able legislators from each party to come together and recognize that flexibility and compromise will be essential to crafting a final agreement. 

Administration officials say there is no acceptable way to reach the total entirely through spending cuts, and they believe that Republican negotiators will eventually come to realize this brutal mathematical fact, as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, tacitly did in the behind-the-scenes negotiations with President Obama.