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Originally published Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 1:35 PM

Special interests gave millions to budget panel

The 12 lawmakers appointed to a new congressional supercommittee charged with tackling the nation's fiscal problems have received millions in contributions from special interests with a direct stake in potential cuts to federal programs, an Associated Press analysis of federal campaign data has found.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON —

The 12 lawmakers appointed to a new congressional supercommittee charged with tackling the nation's fiscal problems have received millions in contributions from special interests with a direct stake in potential cuts to federal programs, an Associated Press analysis of federal campaign data has found.

The newly appointed members - six Democrats and six Republicans - have received more than $3 million total during the past five years in donations from political committees with ties to defense contractors, health care providers and labor unions. That money went to their re-election campaigns, according to AP's review.

Supporters say the lawmakers were picked for their integrity and experience with complicated budget matters. But their appointments already have prompted early concerns from campaign-finance watchdog groups, which urged the lawmakers to stop fundraising and resign from leadership positions in political groups.

The congressional committee, created as part of the debt limit and deficit reduction agreement enacted last week, is charged with cutting more than $1 trillion from the budget during the coming decade. If the committee doesn't decide on cuts by late November - or if Congress votes down the committee's recommendations - spending triggers would automatically cut billions of dollars from politically delicate areas like Medicare and the Pentagon.

The lawmakers represent a large swath of political ideology and geography, but they have some things in common: They received more than $1 million overall in contributions from the health care industry and at least $700,000 from defense companies, the AP found. Those two industries, especially, are sensitive to the outcome of the committee's negotiations because the automatic spending cuts could affect them most directly.

The committee's co-chairs - Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas - each received support from lobbyists and political committees, including those with ties to defense contractors and health care lobbyists. Hensarling's re-election committee, for instance, received about $11,000 from Lockheed Martin and $8,500 from Northrop Grumman.

Companies like Lockheed rely heavily on government contracts: More than 80 percent of Lockheed's net sales during the first six months of 2011 came from the U.S. government, according to Securities and Exchange Commission records. And in SEC filings two weeks ago, Northrop expressed concern of a "material adverse effect" on its finances had the debt ceiling not been raised.

The other panel members are Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.; Pat Toomey, R-Pa.; and Rob Portman, R-Ohio; and Reps. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.; Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; and Michigan Republicans Dave Camp and Fred Upton.

The AP's analysis shows the extent to which special interests have directly supported the 12 members during their tenures in Congress, including support from agriculture businesses ($600,000) and labor unions ($580,000). Big checks also came in from the banking and insurance industry.

The extent of potential conflicts could be even greater than the AP's analysis shows. The AP measured contributions from industry PACs to lawmakers' election committees. But it didn't capture amounts from independent expenditures, such as donations, from defense executives and their families or money given to leadership political committees.

Even still, influence can extend beyond direct campaign contributions. Senate records show that Murray, also the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was named in so-called honoree payments of more than $1 million from lobbyists since 2008. Such honoree contributions are sent to groups associated with members of Congress or for events held in their honor.

Murray spokesman Matt McAlvanah said Thursday that the senator "has made a career out of standing up for working families and against special interests. And that's reflected in her personal story, her votes and the policies she has championed."

Already, even as the final appointments to the committee were announced Thursday, watchdog groups said the panel members will be under remarkable pressure from outside interests. Public Campaign, one such group in Washington, said establishing the committee "will make it cheaper for Wall Street, tax-dodging corporations and special-interest lobbyists to influence the spending cuts and revenue debate in Washington as the focus shifts to just 12 members of Congress."

Bob Edgar, president of the advocacy group Common Cause, said that "with the public already disgusted with Washington in the wake of the debt-limit debacle, it's vital that people have confidence that supercommittee members are thinking about the nation's best interests, not positioning their party or worrying about how their decisions appear to donors."

Public Campaign also called on Murray to step down immediately as head of the Democratic campaign committee.

The White House called such complaints "silly criticism."

"Elected members of Congress are responsible: They take an oath, they are responsible to serve their constituents and their country," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters this week. "We expect every member on the committee to take that responsibility seriously."

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