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Outside Washington, feeling hopeful on the budget crisis

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Thursday, July 15, 2010


Sometimes you can see events in Washington more clearly when you get out of town.

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Before I came here last weekend to cover the annual summer meeting of the National Governors Association, I shared the general Beltway view that the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is an exercise in futility.

After all, it was almost strangled at birth, when a half-dozen Republican senators who had endorsed the idea of a bipartisan panel to tackle the deficit and debt problem reneged and voted against it, only to see President Obama rescue it by executive order.

The odds seemed hopelessly stacked against its finding the needed 14 votes among its 18 members to send a package to Congress for the promised up-or-down vote in December.

But then I heard the commission co-chairmen, Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton White House chief of staff, brief the governors for an hour. I shared the reaction of Mike Beebe, the governor of Arkansas, who said: "I don't know that I ever heard a gloomier picture painted that created more hope for me."

Together, Bowles and Simpson laid out a scenario of a growing gap between the demands on government and its available resources that "is like a cancer," as Bowles put it.

The commission may be a bad joke in Washington, but it was clear that the governors -- many struggling with recession-bred budget crises -- take it seriously.

Like Beebe, they found hope in the fact that, however tough the odds, Simpson and Bowles have created an environment in which serious people are grappling seriously with the biggest domestic challenge facing government.

What I learned from them -- and several commission members interviewed back in Washington -- is that they have pooled their very disparate talents: Simpson, cloaking his blunt cowboy directness in good humor; Bowles, a walking computer of a number-cruncher with the patience and tact of a Southern squire.

The trust they have found in each other is increasingly shared among commission members. Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, who is accustomed to the roughhouse tactics of the House, has been welcomed by Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Andrew Stern, the feisty former president of the Service Employees International Union, has found common ground with archconservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma in wanting to scrutinize Pentagon spending. And David Cote, the chairman of Honeywell International, has impressed Alice Rivlin, the brainy Democratic former director of the Office of Management and Budget, with his insistence on action.

Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a co-sponsor of the bill creating the commission and now a member of the panel, told me that many of the Capitol Hill commissioners have been meeting almost weekly, searching for the path forward.

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