The Senate this week is considering amendments to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) legislation to raise the debt limit.  Reid’s bill is a substitute to the version that passed the House, which would add $925 billion to the federal debt ceiling, but his would hike the limit by $1.9 trillion so that the Senate does not have to take another troublesome vote on the debt limit before the 2010 election.

Raising the debt ceiling to some degree is, unfortunately, necessary to avoid a default with perhaps catastrophic financial consequences for America. But at least the legislation has focused attention on the need for Washington to control its spending behavior.  The issue is: What amendments can be added to the Reid bill to push Congress to face up to the spiraling fiscal problem?

Early on Tuesday, the Senate voted down an amendment offered by Senators Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Kent Conrad (D-ND) which threatened to take the wrong approach by creating a commission to address our debt problem.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) made the prospect of any decisive fiscal action more remote by offering an amendment that would prohibit Congress from including Social Security in any budget legislation involving expedited procedures. Unfortunately, the Baucus amendment was agreed to by the Senate.

Removing Social Security from the discussion may be good short-term politics, but it is the three big entitlements – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – that are the major drivers of federal spending.  These three programs alone will cause spending to explode in the next few decades as the U.S. population ages and the cost of providing health care continues to climb.

The fiscal crisis the nation faces cannot be addressed unless these programs are significantly reformed, but Senator Baucus’ amendment rules out one-third of the equation out if expedited procedures are used—even though tax increases, for example, could be implemented under such procedures.

The Senate will very shortly vote on another Baucus amendment to create his version of a commission. If it is accepted by the Senate, a Bipartisan Task Force will be created to address the fiscal imbalance that threatens the financial future of our children and grandchildren. The task force he proposes is almost identical to the Conrad-Gregg version that has just been defeated. The only significant difference is that it removes that version’s requirement for Congress to use expedited procedures to consider the Commission’s recommendations.  Like Conrad-Gregg, the Baucus commission would not reveal its plan until just after the November election.  The plan could then be voted on by this Congress, including members who might well have lost their seats in the election because of their poor fiscal stewardship.

The most likely the result of the Baucus commission would be no congressional action at all on entitlement reform—while carrying the risk that it would provide cover to raise taxes.

This is the wrong way to conduct a commission, and it will do nothing to build the broad public support needed to confront the federal government’s spending addiction.