Presenting plan to cut deficit, commission members offer surprising compromises

Dec. 1 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican and a member of President Barack Obama's deficit-reduction commission, discusses the committee's plan to reduce the budget deficit. Gregg speaks with Peter Cook in Washington on Bloomberg Television's "In the Loop." (Source: Bloomberg)
By Lori Montgomery and Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 8:26 PM

Members of President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission expressed a surprising willingness Wednesday to compromise on issues that have long divided Republicans and Democrats, including raising taxes and cutting Social Security.

Confronted with a deficit-reduction plan loaded with political dynamite, members from both parties set aside ideological orthodoxy at least briefly, sparking hope that their work could ignite a serious effort to reduce government debt and spare the nation from a European-style fiscal crisis.

While only seven of the 18 members endorsed the package outright, others staked out positions that could change the terms of the well-worn Washington debate over taxes and spending.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the panel's most influential liberals, embraced a proposal to raise the retirement age to 69 in 2075, calling it "not radical" and "acceptable to me" - a rebuke to the progressive groups, labor organizations and advocates for the elderly that have criticized the idea.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), a leader of the GOP's conservative wing, said he could live with a proposal to cut military spending and increase overall federal tax collections as long as income tax rates were lowered, spending cuts were enforced and Democrats agreed to reexamine the growth of spending envisioned under the recent health-care law.

And Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), one of the Republican Party's most respected voices on budget matters, came close to signing on to the package, saying, "This problem is so real, Tom Coburn can't have everything he wants."

"This plan is a plan. The people who have worked on it have tried to build a consensus. I have heartaches with tons of it," he said. "But I know we have to go forward. . . . This is just a down payment on the real, difficult sacrifices that everybody in this country is going to have to make."

Despite the tone of conciliation, commission co-chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson conceded that it will be tough to assemble the 14 votes they need to issue official recommendations when the panel votes Friday. A host of interest groups have already vowed to bury the plan in Congress if it begins to gain traction.

Only one member of the panel, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), said she would vote against the package, arguing that it does too little to protect the middle class against an economic system that seems rigged to benefit the wealthy.

But Durbin also seemed to be leaning toward a "no" vote. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who was absent Wednesday, is not enthusiastic about the panel's approach. And the three House Republicans - Reps. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), Dave Camp (Mich.) and Hensarling - are all expected to reject the package, primarily because of itsimplicit embrace of Obama's health-care overhaul.

Still, the commission has already attracted more attention and received more respect than nearly anyone predicted. When Obama created it nearly 10 months ago, Republicans dismissed it as a gimmick designed to give the appearance of addressing record deficits in the run-up to the midterm elections. Even many Democrats regarded it as a sham.

"You think about where this started. A lot of people said we wouldn't get six votes," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) came up with the commission concept. Of a dozen lawmakers on the panel, Conrad and Gregg were the only ones to offer immediate support for the deficit-reduction proposals, though Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) said he is also leaning toward a "yes" vote.

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