Bipartisan action on the federal debt -- outside the Capitol, of course

Tom Daschle, left, and Pete Domenici want to do something about the national debt. Of course, they're not in Congress anymore.
Tom Daschle, left, and Pete Domenici want to do something about the national debt. Of course, they're not in Congress anymore. (Charles Dharapak - AP)
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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

At 11:30 Tuesday morning, the Senate will choose between responsible governance and ideological warfare.

The smart money is on the latter.

The federal debt has exploded to an incomprehensible $12.1 trillion, and the nation continues on its path to becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the People's Republic of China. Yet lawmakers can't even agree on a modest proposal to form an independent debt commission and then vote on its recommendations.

The debt commission is expected to be voted down Tuesday morning, as foes on the far left and the far right unite to form a status quo supermajority. Prospects have become so bleak that a couple of retired congressional leaders got together Monday morning in hopes of shaming their former colleagues into action.

"They have to get on with this," exhorted Republican Pete Domenici, the former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "I don't think we can go through another full legislative session and not do something."

"We're beyond a level of frustration and nearing a level of fear, when serious people begin to think about downgrading America's debt," pleaded Democrat Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader. "We need to act now."

The two men, along with Alice Rivlin, who served as budget director and as a Fed official under President Bill Clinton, were in the offices of the Bipartisan Policy Center to announce that they were forming a private-sector debt commission. They recruited a group of heavy hitters, including two former governors and a former commerce secretary, but all they can do is make suggestions -- which, if past is prologue, Congress will ignore.

Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee, tried to get beyond this congressional inertia by proposing a statutory commission whose recommendations would be guaranteed an up-or-down vote. Lawmakers, they reasoned, had proved they couldn't make the tough choices on their own.

They lined up 35 sponsors and co-sponsors, 21 Republicans and 14 Democrats, and in the last couple of months the proposal appeared to have a chance at passage. Then the ideologues got involved.

On the right, the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal editorial board objected, and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist campaigned for the commission's defeat. Six Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), buckled and withdrew their support for the commission.

On the left, the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, and other groups redoubled their opposition, even as President Obama gave the commission his last-minute endorsement on Saturday.

The conservatives fear that the commission would lead to higher taxes. The liberals fear that it would lead to cuts in entitlement programs. They're both probably correct -- for the simple reason that the debt problem is too big to fix without doing both.

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