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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In 2007, he and his union created a furor by partnering with Wal-Mart -- a bitter enemy of organized labor -- in support of health-care reform. The collaboration, which followed secret negotiations, sparked complaints from other unions that Stern was grandstanding. "Why is he so cozy with corporations?" asked the Nation, a liberal weekly magazine.

Stern was also an architect of "Divided We Fail," a collaboration between his union, the Business Roundtable, the National Federation of Business and AARP, the senior citizens' lobbying group.

The four groups disagreed about the particulars of health-care reform, but they financed a heavy television and newspaper ad campaign about the urgent need to pass ambitious legislation.

"We were probably the most odd-fellows group you could put together," said John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, a highly influential advocacy group of the nation's top chief executives. "The premise was, we may disagree on what health care should look like in its final form, but we all agree it needs to be addressed."

Past party lines

On the fiscal commission, Stern is already looking for ways to break through the ideological camps on deficit-reduction. He has met privately with all six Republican lawmakers on the panel, and he has publicly praised ideas from conservatives such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). He has yet to meet one-on-one with any of the commission's Democrats, suggesting it would be like preaching to the choir.

"This isn't a question of whether Jan Schakowsky and I agree,'' he says, referring to the liberal House Democrat from Illinois.

Cote has quietly nudged the panel, too. When Democrats and Republicans started to trade barbs last month over the president's stimulus program, Cote warned that the group was getting bogged down in politics. The other panel members backed down, earning a heartfelt thanks from Simpson, the Republican co-chair.

Simpson and Bowles have labored mightily to squelch the party feuding. But unless Republican and Democratic political leaders in Congress show more willingness to compromise, analysts doubt the commission members will agree on broad proposals by their Dec. 1 deadline.

Recommendations will require the support of at least 14 of the 18 members, a high bar to clear. Supporters say that even if a supermajority of the panel fails to reach agreement, the deliberations could help nurture a consensus in Congress next year, especially if the members named by Obama -- four Democrats and two Republicans -- can agree on a set of recommendations.

Unwilling to wait and see how the broader politics play out, Cote and Stern are hunting for unnoticed areas of common ground. They recently arranged a private field trip to the Business Roundtable, where they spent several hours talking about international corporate taxation. Why? The two suspect that deficit-reduction measures could include tax reforms that reduce the competitive disadvantages of the U.S. tax system.

Similarly, Stern has begun probing top union officials about ways to bolster Social Security. One idea: to have state employees, who currently do not contribute to Social Security, join into the program.

It's anybody's guess whether those efforts will lead to a breakthrough on the commission, much less in Congress.

"We're still at the trust-building stage," Cote said, referring to the deficit panel as a whole. "Andy's done the best of everyone in reaching out, including to me."


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