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Deficit plan wins 11 of 18 votes; more than expected, but not enough to force action

By Brady Dennis and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 3, 2010; 8:10 PM

Eleven of the 18 members of President Obama's fiscal commission voted Friday to embrace a bipartisan commission's controversial plan to slash deficits by nearly $4 trillion over the next decade - too few votes to command quick action in Congress, but far more than even the panel's most ardent supporters had predicted just a few weeks ago.

Among those voting yes were all three of the Senate Republicans appointed to the panel, including Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), a rock-ribbed conservative who endorsed the package despite a sharp increase in federal tax collections.

Two Senate Democrats on the panel also voted yes, including assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), an influential liberal who sought to bridge a major partisan divide by explicitly endorsing a gradual increase in the retirement age from 67 to 69.

The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), also voted yes, and Durbin predicted that Conrad would use the commission's report as a basis for constructing the party's next fiscal blueprint early in 2011.

Incoming House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has pledged to do the same, even though he and the two other House Republicans on the panel voted against the package. Their opposition was based primarily on the commission's implicit embrace of Obama's health-care overhaul.

The commission's final plan recommends making sharp cuts to military spending and phasing in a higher retirement age. The package would raise taxes by nearly $1 trillion by 2020, primarily through moves that would eliminate or reduce long-standing credits, such as the home mortgage interest deduction.

Meanwhile, the top income tax rate for both individuals and corporations would be dramatically lowered, from 35 percent to 29 percent or less. The report also recommends a legislative trigger that would raise taxes automatically unless a comprehensive overhaul is approved by 2013.

The final package would balance the budget by 2035 and bring down the nation's debt to a manageable 41 percent of gross domestic product over the next 25 years.

Two of the three House Democrats on the panel, both liberals, voted against the package; outgoing House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt (S.C.), who lost his recent bid for reelection, voted yes. Former labor leader Andy Stern also voted no, the only one of Obama's six appointees to reject the proposal.

Durbin hailed the vote as "a breakthrough" that sends a strong signal that "people on the left have got to join with people on the right to find a solution" to the soaring national debt.

And Conrad, one of the chief architects of the commission concept, offered effusive praise and thanks to the people with whom he has been locked in difficult talks for much of the past 10 months.

"I never thought there was much prospect of getting 14 votes. But we're gonna get 11," Conrad said before the vote. "I believe we've crossed an important hurdle here, and laid out a plan that will be resurrected. Because it must be."

The other Republicans on the panel are Sens. Mike Crapo of Idaho, also a strong conservative, and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who is retiring.

Coburn and Crapo said that despite the heartburn they share over elements of the package, they were signing onto it in hopes of spurring a serious effort to remedy the country's fiscal woes.

"Our debt crisis is a threat not just to our way of life but to our national survival," Crapo told reporters Thursday in an appearance alongside Coburn. "And the threat that we face is so real and so close that we do not have further time for gridlock or inaction. It's necessary that we take strong, aggressive action now."

In an op-ed article published by the Chicago Tribune on Thursday night, Durbin, who serves as assistant Senate majority leader, wrote: "This plan is not perfect, and it is certainly not the plan I would have written. ... If we don't act now - if we pass this issue on to another Congress, another generation - the tough choices we face now only get tougher."

President Obama issued a statement praising the commission's work, and vowed to consider its recommendations for inclusion in the administration's agenda for next year.

He said White House budget director Jack Lew and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner would soon schedule a meeting with the entire panel to discuss the package. And he pointed out steps the administration has already taken to reduce the deficit, including proposing a three-year freeze in non-security discretionary spending and a two-year pay freeze for federal civilian workers.

"I don't doubt our ability to meet this challenge, but our success depends on our willingness to engage in the kind of honest conversation and cooperation that hasn't always happened in Washington," Obama said in the statement. "We cannot afford to fall back on old ideologies, and we will all have to budge on long-held positions. So I ask members of both parties to maintain an open mind and a commitment to progress as we work to lift this burden from the shoulders of future generations."

While Conrad and Ryan said lawmakers could adopt pieces of the package during next year's budget process, Conrad said it is far preferable for Congress to consider the package as a whole.

He called on the administration and leaders of both parties in both chambers to convene a fiscal summit to begin negotiations in earnest.

Several commission aides and members said lawmakers could initiate such a summit by making it a condition for congressional approval of a increase in the legal limit on government borrowing. The Treasury Department is due to hit the current debt limit, set at $14.3 trillion, some time in the first half of next year.

The deficit group was chaired by former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming.

They included provisions designed to garner support from individual panel members, including $50 billion in immediate spending cuts suggested by Coburn and support for an immediate payroll tax holiday, requested by Durbin, to spur job creation.

At the same time, the co-chairmen resisted changes that would water down the far-reaching package. Simpson said this week that even if the package doesn't get the 14 votes necessary to prompt congressional consideration, the plan would succeed in changing the overall debate.

"Whether we get two votes or 18, this baby ain't goin' away," he said earlier this week. "Oh, sure, it may be buried in an unmarked grave soon, but when the votes for the budget and to extend the debt limit and the debate on that comes up in the spring, this cadaver will rise from the crypt."

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