In less than one week, the 12-member congressional supercommittee faces a deadline to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in cuts to the federal budget. Otherwise, broad cuts will be "triggered" across federal agencies and programs.
Sen. John Kerry is the only committee representative from Massachusetts. Kerry brings decades of experience to the task, including a presidential bid and his position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But his role on the supercommittee could help define his legacy.
In one of the committee's few public hearings, Kerry indicated he wants to be bold. Instead of agreeing to the minimum budget cuts, he talked about three or four times that. In October, Kerry asked Congressional Budge Office Director Douglas Elmendorf what would happen if the committee didn't make sweeping changes.
"If we do simply $1.2 or $1.5 [trillion], which is the current goal, and that’s all we do, isn’t it a fact that we’re going to be back here in a year or two or three at maximum, dealing with the very same issues that are on the plate now about the un-sustainability of our budget?"
"Yes, senator, I think you are certainly right," Elmendorf said.
In that hearing, Kerry talked about a possible $3 or $4 trillion deal that would include an increase in revenue from closing tax loopholes. It’s unclear if his approach has any support on the committee. Only seven members of the 12-member committee need to agree on a deal to move it to the House and Senate for an up or down vote.
"I think the most interesting person on the panel right now is Sen. Kerry," said reporter Major Garrett, who's following the supercommittee for The National Journal, a Washington beltway news magazine. Garrett says this could be Kerry’s moment.
"I do believe ambition combined with legacy — and I don’t mean ambition in sort of a pejorative way at all — I mean, 'Hey, I have a chance to make a real mark here.' It sits there before him and he might be enticed by it," Garrett said.
Enticing, maybe. But it would require him to take a big bite out of what he's stood for — federal programs he and other Democrats have long supported. But Garrett sees Kerry pushing the envelope.
"I think he’s playing the intellectual provocateur," Garrett said, "'Let's talk about these things. Why can’t we do this? Why can’t we do that? Is it really impossible to restructure things in Medicare in a new way? Is it impossible to change the benefit structure through the Consumer Price Index for Social Security?' "
These types of cuts appear to be on the table for the supercommittee, and they're putting Kerry under intense lobbying pressure.
At a recent rally of seniors against federal benefit reductions, Al Richardson, a retired pipe-fitter from Abington, said his union has always supported Kerry. Now, Richardson says the senator should remember that while he’s contemplating cutting Social Security and Medicare.
"He should be ashamed of himself for even thinking about this," Richardson said. "I have no problem with the rich having all the money, but don’t take it out of these guys here that are busting their hump. I’m 70 years old and I hope to live a little longer; I need the money."
Richardson's union is among hundreds of groups lobbying Kerry and other members of the supercommittee. Massachusetts' senior senator is even being lobbied by members of his own congressional delegation. Rep. Barney Frank wants the panel to slash military spending, an unpopular position among Republicans. Frank says he’s had private talks with Kerry about the idea.
"I also personally told John that I thought this was very important," Frank said. "This is for the budget of America and I told him I thought it was very important that military spending reductions be a major part of this or else to do effective deficit reduction you devastate a lot of other things."
Frank wouldn’t say if Kerry tipped his hand to indicate his plans. Kerry is one of the hardest committee members to read, Garrett says.
"Kerry? Forget it! He is totally radio silence on this and for these sorts of endeavors to succeed you need almost universal radio silence, and at least from his perspective, everything he’s indicating publicly, he’s working on hard issues internally and saving all of his voice and powers of persuasion — whatever they are — for the inside work."
The inside work of the committee is a mystery. Kerry declined to be interviewed for this story, but his press secretary sent a written statement saying the senator is advocating for fairness and balance in the supercommittee’s work.
This program aired on November 17, 2011.