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Small-bore Proposals To Help Avert Fiscal Cliff

The supercommittee developed a roster but never nailed down any agreements, said an aide to a GOP panel member. If the panel had decided to "go big," more could have been asked of, say, federal workers or companies with underfunded pension plans. More controversial approaches such as curbing student loan subsidies also might have made it onto the agenda.

The failure of the supercommittee meant that some of the ideas â¿¿ particularly the less controversial ones â¿¿ were left vulnerable for plucking by lawmakers, not for deficit reduction but as ways to pay for new spending on things like highways, student loan subsidies and jobless benefits.

Easy-money options like auctioning public airwaves to communications companies ($15 billion over 10 years) or increased fees on mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ($36 billion) have been tapped already.

A longstanding 10-year, $749 million proposal to limit coal mine cleanup payments to states where problem sites have already been addressed â¿¿ long blocked by Wyoming senators â¿¿ was grabbed this summer to help pay for highway programs, as was a $1.1 billion subsidy for shipping food aid to foreign countries on U.S.-flagged ships.

With the low-hanging fruit already picked, the ideas that remain are generally more controversial.

Take federal workers. They were clipped in February to help pay for extending unemployment benefits for people without jobs for more than six months. Newly hired federal workers now have to contribute an additional 2.3 percent of their pay toward their pensions. That move came after a huge behind-the-scenes battle in which Washington-area lawmakers like Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., succeeded in stifling an effort to make existing workers to contribute more as well.

"Federal employees are the only group in America that's been asked to make a sacrifice with respect to the national debt. They've had their pay frozen for three years in a row. They financed the payroll tax cut extension," said Rep. Gerry Connelly, D-Va., whose suburban district near Washington is home to 58,000 active federal workers. "They've already given."

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