The embattled co-chairs of President Obama’s fiscal commission defended their controversial debt reduction package in appearances on Friday and said they will issue a final report even if they don’t get enough votes from the other commission members to submit it to Congress.
The plan drafted by Republican Alan Simpson, a former Senator from Wyoming, and Democrat Erskine Bowles, a former White House Chief of Staff to President Clinton, would erase nearly $4 trillion from projected deficits through 2020. The changes, including deep cuts to Medicare and defense programs, raising the Social Security retirement age to 69, and adding a 15 percent gasoline tax, would not take effect before 2012.
“We aren't going to do a whitewash,” Bowles said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. “We aren't going to make it softer than it is today. It's going to be a tough report. If we get 14 votes, great; if we don't. Then, by God, we put it out there.”
Under President Obama’s executive order creating the bipartisan commission, at least 14 of the 18 members must approve any proposals before they can be submitted to Congress for a vote. When asked whether the co-chairs were close to obtaining the 14 votes, Simpson said: “We've got a shot and we'll be back here.” A final report is due from the commission by December 1.
A spokesman for the commission said Bowles and Simpson were determined to drive home the message they would not back down or dilute their draft proposals in delivering a final report to the president and Congress, regardless of the intensity of criticism. Bowles and Simpson have gone home for the Thanksgiving holiday, the spokesman said, but they will negotiate with other commission members by phone through November 29 – when they will hold another closed door meetings. The final plan will then be unveiled during two public meetings on Capitol Hill.
Bowles and Simpson also appeared together at a Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast in Washington where they acknowledged their proposal was under attack from both liberal and conservative groups and sought to respond to their critics.
In response to their critics, Simpson said: “just go read the damn thing and then call us.”
They also discussed the difficulty the administration and the new Congress will confront when the federal debt reaches the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling some time by early spring, and will have to enact legislation to raise the ceiling – always an unpopular task for either party. The current federal debt, including the public debt and intra-governmental borrowing -- stands at $13.6 trillion.
“The debt limit when it comes in April or May will prove who is a hero and who is a jerk and who is a charlatan and who is a faker,” Simpson said at the Washington breakfast. “This is going to be beautiful politics, the brutal kind. I love those.”
The salty Simpson, 79, who is known for his colorful language, said he can’t wait for the ‘bloodbath in April’ when there will be a vote on the debt ceiling.
But the prospects of Simpson and Bowles having to offer their long term debt reduction proposals on their own, without the backing of a supermajority of the commission, doesn’t come as a surprise. Earlier this year, former White House Budget Director Peter Orszag forecasted that the deficit reduction recommendations would come from the panel’s co-chairs rather than from recommendations supported by 14 of the panel’s 18 members. The White House did not take a position on the proposal.
“I’m fairly confident that something – I don’t know if it’s a majority report or a co-chair report – but something is going to come out of this commission, and it will exert pressure on the political system,” Orszag said.
While the presidential deficit panel struggles to reach a consensus, Americans have also expressed their own concerns with the recommendations. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 59 percent of Americans are uncomfortable about raising taxes or changing the tax code to reduce the deficit. Some 41 percent said that they are somewhat or very comfortable with the Bowles-Simpson plan, while 57 percent said they are uncomfortable about raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 by 2075.
The Bowles-Simpson proposals came under heavy political fire from both Republicans and Democrats within hours of its release last week. Shortly thereafter, two alternative recommendations were unveiled. One was from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Debt Reduction Task Force, co-chaired by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and former White House Budget Director Alice Rivlin. Another was submitted by liberal Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a member of the President’s fiscal commission and was one of the first panel members to oppose the Bowles-Simpson plan.