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64 senators seek presidential leadership on debt reduction

By Editorial
Monday, March 21, 2011; 8:37 PM

AN ASTONISHING NUMBER of senators - 64, divided equally between the two parties - have signed a letter urging President Obama to support the work of his own fiscal commission. They didn't put it in quite that cheeky way, of course, but the message was clear: Action on the debt demands presidential involvement, if not presidential leadership.

While the immediate debate in Congress concerns relatively minuscule amounts of the current year's spending, the senators wrote, "comprehensive deficit reduction measures are imperative." They called on the president to "engage in a broader discussion about a comprehensive deficit reduction package" - and cite the ongoing work of the Senate's so-called Gang of Six to craft a solution based on the commission's recommendations. "While we may not agree with every aspect of the Commission's recommendations," they said, "we believe that its work represents an important foundation to achieve meaningful progress on our debt. . . . Specifically, we hope that the discussion will include discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform."

An analysis released by the Congressional Budget Office on Friday served as a reminder of the seriousness of the problem, and the trouble the country faces if it stays on its current path: "Federal debt held by the public would double under the President's budget, growing from $10.4 trillion (69 percent of GDP) at the end of 2011 to $20.8 trillion (87 percent of GDP) at the end of 2021." One result is that interest payments would quadruple over that decade, crowding out other spending.

The senators' letter, organized by Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet and Nebraska Republican Mike Johanns, was intended to offer the president some assurance that, if he takes political risks on deficit reduction, lawmakers won't saw the limb out from under him. The signers included 32 Democrats, including Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and 32 Republicans, including GOP Conference Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)

A single, relatively vague letter should not be mistaken for agreement on a final package; that will be difficult and painful to achieve. Still, when it's difficult to get a filibuster-proof majority to agree on naming a new post office, securing that number of signatures from senators across the spectrum is no small feat. And it is significant that such a large number endorsed the fundamental conclusion of the fiscal commission - that the only realistic way to deal with the debt is with a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach combining spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform. "I do not believe that the hard things that need to be done can be done without the White House being involved every step of the way," Mr. Johanns told reporters. We hope the president is reading his mail - and taking it to heart.

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