11 votes for deficit report not enough to send it to Congress

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 3, 2010 

WASHINGTON — A majority of President Barack Obama’s bipartisan federal debt commission members on Friday endorsed their leaders’ sweeping blueprint for slashing nearly $4 trillion from budget deficits over the next 10 years.

But the 11 supporters of the 18-member National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform “Moment of Truth” plan were short of the 14 needed to send the package to Congress for votes.

Commission members nevertheless said their work was an important first step in the process of paring the record federal debt — now $13.8 trillion — and even most of the dissenters agreed.

Whether the commission’s work results in change may depend largely on whether Obama, who appointed the panel, incorporates its recommendations into his federal budget blueprint early next year, and fights for them.

The president made no commitments Friday. In a statement, he praised the commission's work and said his budget director, Jack Lew, had invited all commission members to meet with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Lew. Obama urged all parties to keep open minds and "engage in the kind of honest conversation and cooperation that hasn't always happened in Washington" to work together “to lift this burden from the shoulders of future generations.”

Perhaps most striking, the plan got support within the commission across the political spectrum, drawing votes from liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. That may reflect that it operated in far different fashion from the modern-day Congress. Commission members huddled together privately for months, building trust across party lines in one another's good-faith commitment to grapple with serious issues, which helped pave the way for members to compromise.

In contrast, members of Congress rarely work together across party lines in the modern era. They band together in tightly disciplined party caucuses during the workweek and flee the capital for long weekends to campaign at home rather than socializing together and building the relationships that help produce bipartisan legislation.

Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a liberal, voted for the plan, explaining that when Congress tackles the hard budget issues that the commission has framed, “I want progressive voices at the table to help protect the most vulnerable. …Today with my vote I’m claiming a seat at that table."

Other lawmakers on the commission who endorsed the recommendations were Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., and Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

Even dissenters were optimistic that the report would spark a movement to engage in serious fiscal-policy negotiations in coming months.

“This is a plan worthy of consideration,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., who opposed it.

Still, the failure to gain enough support to require Congress to vote on the report highlighted the kinds of problems that Congress and the White House are likely to face in the months ahead.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., opposed it because she, like many liberals, was concerned about spending cuts that would mean reducing benefits for Social Security recipients, Medicare patients and others.

“Those who have not joined the prosperity party the last couple years are being asked to pick up too much of the tab,” she said.

Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who's slated to become the House Ways and Means Committee chairman next month, also voted no. Like many Republicans, he saw the report as a launching pad for tax increases, and he lamented that it did little to reduce health care costs.

“Health care spending is the number one driver of our debt, and if we are serious about reining in entitlement spending, the health care law must be part of that effort,” he said.

The fiscal 2010 budget deficit was $1.29 trillion. The commission majority recommended capping spending in virtually all government programs through 2020 except for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and some national security programs.

It also would revamp the tax system so that instead of five income tax rates, there would be three: 8, 14 and 23 percent. It would end about $1.1 trillion in popular tax breaks, such as mortgage interest deductions.

ON THE WEB:

Commission web site

Congressional Budget Office deficit projections

Treasury Department report on 2010 deficit

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