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Leaders of Obama debt commission go rogue

As a government shutdown looms, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of the bipartisan deficit commission, have created the Moment of Truth Project to push recommendations for cutting the budget deficit by $828 billion over the next five years.

March 08, 2011|By Michael A. Memoli, Washington Bureau
  • Former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, left, and former Republican Senator from Wyoming Alan Simpson, right, testify before a Senate Budget Committee hearing on the report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
Former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, left, and former Republican… (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA )

Reporting from Washington — — Determined to ensure their work lives on, the co-chairmen of the bipartisan deficit commission appointed by President Obama have gone rogue, working Capitol Hill to pressure lawmakers to consider their proposals to tackle the nation's debt challenges.

Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton administration official, and Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, launched Tuesday what they called the "Moment of Truth Project," adopting the title of the final report issued by the panel they led, the Bipartisan Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

The panel offered a series of recommendations that would have cut the budget deficit, in total, by $828 billion over the next five years. It included a mix of spending cuts (a cap on discretionary spending through 2020), entitlement reforms (increasing the age for full Social Security benefits) and an overhaul of the tax code that would eliminate many popular deductions.

When the recommendations came up for a vote, 11 of 18 members supported them — a majority, but not enough to require a vote in Congress under the terms of its mandate.

Prominent backers, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), had hoped Obama might nonetheless embrace some proposals as he pivoted his administration at midterm. His budget proposal issued last month ultimately included little of it.

As the Congress works with the White House to forestall a government shutdown next week, Simpson and Bowles came to the Senate Budget Committee to reiterate their call for a serious response to what was described as the most predictable economic crisis in history.

Their work is aimed at ensuring their recommendations don't suffer the same fate as other presidential blue-ribbon panels before them, collecting dust.

"If we just take the ostrich theory in this room, then we'll be spending $1 trillion a year in interest cost alone by the year 2020," Bowles told the committee Tuesday, referring to the national debt. "That's a trillion dollars that won't educate our children. It's a trillion dollars that won't build a highway or won't bring broadband infrastructure to rural South Carolina. … It's crazy."

Besides dire warnings about the sustainability of the nation's fiscal course, their effort also relies in some ways on the force of personality. Bowles is the so-called "numbers guy," often playing the straight man to Simpson, known for his folksy charm and granddad humor. He earned some headlines Monday for referring to popular rappers Eminem and Snoop Dog as "enema man" and "Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dogg," respectively.

Bowles later said the panel was glad it got a majority vote for its report and good press, but the group was more interested in getting something done. "That's why we're back," he said.

In concert with the Moment of Truth Project, a bipartisan working group of six senators, including four who voted for the commission report, have been meeting informally in the hopes of putting some of the panel's recommendations into legislative language for consideration this year.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), another commission member, has said he will not support raising the nation's debt limit without also establishing a clear path toward reducing the nation's deficits.

"I deeply believe we've got to do something like this," he said, "and the only plan out there I see that's got bipartisan support is this one."

The effort comes as lawmakers seem increasingly at odds in negotiations over a measure to fund government operations for the remainder of the current fiscal year. Votes on both the Democratic and Republican plans were expected Tuesday in the Senate, but nothing has been scheduled.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused the GOP of reneging on a deal to bring each proposal to a vote because it is afraid to go on the record on the House GOP's plan that would cut spending by $61 billion.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

twitter.com/mikememoli

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