Consensus is forming on what steps to take in cutting the deficit

The Senate's top Republican is accusing Democrats of wasting Congress' lame-duck session on issues like gays in the military and the environment when tax cuts are the real priority. (Nov. 20)
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 12:47 AM

After an election dominated by vague demands for less debt and smaller government, the sacrifices necessary to achieve those goals are coming into sharp focus. Big cuts at the Pentagon. Higher taxes, including those on home ownership and health care. Smaller Social Security checks and higher Medicare premiums.

A debate is raging over the size and shape of those changes, particularly the wisdom of cutting Social Security benefits. But a surprisingly broad consensus is forming around the actions required to stabilize borrowing and ease fears of a European-style debt crisis in the United States. As a presidential commission struggles to build political momentum for such a package, even Republicans who initially opposed the commission's creation are still at the negotiating table.

"I'm open to everything if it gets us where we need to go," said Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), who is emerging as one of the GOP's most influential voices on budget issues. "This is going to require compromise, even from someone as conservative as me."

Coburn is among a dozen lawmakers serving on the independent commission that President Obama created to help rebalance the federal budget. The panel will conclude its work after Thanksgiving with a vote that will reveal whether a convincing majority of its 18 members can agree on a deficit-reduction strategy.

Whatever the outcome, the plan unveiled this month by co-chairmen Erskine B. Bowles, a chief of staff in the Clinton White House, and Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, has been respectfully received with a few exceptions by both parties. Its major elements are also winning support from a striking line-up of commentators.

Former AARP chief Bill Novelli, who sits on a separate budget-balancing panel, has acknowledged the need to trim benefits to make Social Security solvent for future generations. This second panel is chaired by Alice M. Rivlin, a budget director under President Clinton, and Pete Domenici, a former Republican senator from New Mexico.

Former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, a conservative Republican who also sits on their panel, acknowledged the need for more tax revenue, saying lower income-tax rates paired with a national sales tax constitute "for me as a conservative, excellent public policy."

Meanwhile, a chorus of retired military officers and national security experts has backed the call to reduce spending at the Pentagon for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"It is simply not going to be viable, either economically or politically, to exempt defense from the cuts that are coming," said Gordon Adams, who oversaw military budgets during the Clinton administration. "Events over the past two weeks have begun to snowball to put defense, as well as every other form of federal spending, on the table."

The strange bedfellows are a "testament to the moderate nature" of the ideas under discussion, Domenici said. For those who have taken the measure of the debt abyss, including the threat of $1 trillion annual interest payments by the end of the decade, "this is not extreme."

After hours of talks by the presidential deficit commission, which includes some of most liberal and conservative lawmakers in Congress, Bowles said it is clear that "there is common ground there."

"If this town decides it really wants to come together and solve this today," he said, "it's doable."

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