Correction to This Article
This article about a labor leader and a chief executive working together on a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit inaccurately represented, because of a punctuation error, one idea for bolstering Social Security. The article said the idea was "to have state employees, who currently do not contribute to Social Security, join into the program." It should have said that the idea was "to have state employees who currently do not contribute to Social Security join into the program." Many state employees already contribute.
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Labor leader, chief executive team up to reduce the U.S. deficit

(Andrew Harrer/bloomberg)
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Stern was quick to sympathize. "It's a very practical set of questions," he said. "You have a certain amount of income, and you have a certain amount of expenses."

But the murmurings of agreement can be deceptive. Cote emphasizes that economic growth is the key to fiscal stability, and Stern politely contends that it's unrealistic to bank on economic growth alone as the solution. "There are some people who say, 'Let's grow our way out of it,' " Stern said. "Okay. Tell me how much growth we're going to need? Has it ever happened before?"

The subtext of their exchange is clearly about the broader clash. Republicans warn that higher taxes will imperil economic growth and focus on the need for spending cuts. Democrats argue that some of the biggest GOP targets -- safety-net programs -- need to be protected and that deficits are too big to be closed without at least some tax increases.

A debate is raging in Congress and among economists about whether this is the right time to start reducing deficits. Many liberal groups worried about high unemployment argue that the economy is still so weak that the government should keep spending and deficits high to prevent a double-dip recession. But lawmakers in both parties are balking at new stimulus spending, and some economists argue that the deficit needs to be reined in sooner rather than later.

The panel itself was proposed by a bipartisan odd couple: Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). Both are members of the commission. Gregg recently teamed with a prominent Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), on a proposal to overhaul the tax code.

The panel's co-chairmen, meanwhile, are battle-scarred veterans of previous bipartisan budget deals. Alan K. Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, voted for the 1990 budget agreement between Democrats in Congress and President George H.W. Bush. Bowles, a former chief of staff under Clinton, was a key negotiator on the 1997 budget agreement with Newt Gingrich, then the Republican House Speaker.

Two of a kind, after all

In their first joint interview -- Stern and Cote insisted on being interviewed together -- it would have been easy to mix up the two.

Both men wore blue, pin-striped suits and bantered about their common experience running big organizations. Stern, with his coifed white hair and his pink silk tie, could have passed for a business mogul and often sounded like one as he talked of the need for "targets" and "reaching the numbers." Cote was if anything the more rumpled of the two and spoke in plain terms about the sheer magnitude of a trillion-dollar deficit.

Stern had reached out first, sending an e-mail and inviting Cote for a visit just before the panel's first public meeting in late April. Cote said he had initially been nervous, given Stern's reputation as a combative and powerful labor leader, but he showed up at the union's headquarters April 28 and immediately felt at ease with him.

"Andy reached out," Cote said. "I thought, 'Okay, this guy's got more guts than I do.' "

Although he has almost always voted Republican, Cote said he considers himself a pragmatist and supported Obama for president. Within days of Obama's inauguration, Cote led a team of top corporate executives to the White House and spoke out strongly in support of the president's economic stimulus plan.

Stern, for his part, had a long history of teaming up with unlikely bedfellows.

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