Republicans criticize bipartisan US debt panel

* Republicans say must be set up by Congress

* Criticism could diminish bipartisan effort

WASHINGTON, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers on Wednesday blasted Democratic plans to set up a bipartisan debt-reduction commission, underlining the political challenges that face any effort to get the U.S. budget under control.

Riding high after unexpectedly picking up a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts on Tuesday, key Republicans said they would not support a White House task force that would consider tax hikes, spending cuts and other unpopular measures to bring down budget deficits to a manageable level.

“It’s a nothing-burger,” said Republican Senator Judd Gregg, even though he has proposed a similar measure.

Republican opposition could undermine the bipartisan luster of the commission, which aims to reach consensus on taming the $12.4 trillion debt and give lawmakers political cover to sign off on measures that could anger voters.

Republican Representative Frank Wolf, whose own version has drawn more than 100 co-sponsors in the House, blasted the Democratic plan as a “fig leaf.”

Senator George Voinovich, the only Republican to vote with Democrats to raise the debt limit last month, said it would cover a different part of President Barack Obama’s anatomy.

“It basically is a Democratic thing and will be interpreted as something that is put in place to kind of cover his rear end,” Voinovich said.

Obama has said that deficit reduction will be a top priority of his administration this year. The government spent a record $1.4 trillion more than it collected in the last fiscal year and deficits are projected to remain high over the coming decade.

Gregg said that any task force must be set up by Congress to ensure that its recommendations are not ignored.

Gregg’s proposal, co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, is not expected to pass the Senate when it comes up for a vote in coming days.

That leaves an executive commission, which would not have the power to force Congress to consider its recommendations.


Conrad said he has been negotiating with Democratic leaders to ensure a vote for the task force’s findings and cautioned that a final deal has not been reached.

The task force would consist of six Democratic lawmakers, six Republican lawmakers, and six members appointed by the Obama administration, Conrad said. Fourteen of the commission’s members would have to sign off on its recommendations -- meaning at least two Republicans would have to be on board.

In order to become law, the committee’s findings would need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, Conrad said. That means at least one Republican would have to back it.

It would only require a simple majority in the House of Representatives, where Democrats enjoy a 40-seat advantage.

The vote would take place after the November congressional elections, when lawmakers would feel less political pressure.

But partisan forces will inevitably loom large.

“You can’t take the politics out of a decision that is inherently political,” said Stan Collender, a budget expert who has worked on both the House and Senate budget committees.

The deal would also clear the way for the Senate to approve a separate measure, known as “paygo,” that would require any new spending or tax cuts to be offset with savings elsewhere.

The House has already passed paygo, but Conrad and others in the Senate have said it is too full of loopholes.

The compromise version would phase out exemptions for the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax after two years and elevated medical spending after five years, Conrad said.

Additional reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Cynthia Osterman