Experienced deficit cutters urge supercommittee to triple its goal

Worry that members will ‘fail the country’

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The co-chairmen of two past deficit reduction panels warned the congressional supercommittee on Tuesday that the nation could face economic turmoil unless it went “big” and more than tripled its minimum goal of finding $1.2 trillion in government savings.

Yet despite the stern words from the authors of the Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici proposals, the 12 members of the bipartisan supercommittee seem far from reaching a deal as the clock ticks down toward a critical Thanksgiving deadline.

“I have great respect for each of you individually, but collectively I’m worried you’re going to fail - fail the country,” Erskine Bowles, a chief of staff for President Clinton, said during a hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reductions at the Capitol.

Mr. Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, Wyoming Republican, defended recommendations in their 2010 White House-commissioned plan to trim the debt by about $4 trillion that would include spending cuts and tax revenue increases. Anything short, they said, would do little to avoid an economic catastrophe.

“We didn’t make the $4 trillion number up because the No. 4 bus rode down the street,” Mr. Bowles said. “It’s not the ideal amount. It is the minimum amount we need to reduce the deficit in order to stabilize the debt and get it on a downward path as a percent of GDP [gross domestic product].”

Alice Rivlin, a former Clinton economic adviser, echoed the $4 trillion figure as the minimum benchmark in a “grand plan” that includes significant tax and entitlement program reforms.

“A grand bargain would reduce the chances of a devastating double-dip recession that could lead to a stagnant, lost decade,” said Ms. Rivlin, who also is a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve. “It would also reassure citizens and markets that our political process is functioning in the public interest, not stuck in partisan gridlock or overwhelmed by special interests.”

The Simpson-Bowles proposal calls for a ratio of $3 in spending cuts for every $1 of revenue increases. The Rivlin-Domenici plan aims to trim the debt by almost $6 trillion with a mix of 60 percent spending cuts and 40 percent in new taxes and other revenue. Both plans largely were dismissed by the Obama administration and Congress.

The four co-chairmen were invited to testify because of their success in marshaling their own bipartisan deficit-reduction deals. But while the dozen members of the current debt panel spent three hours dissecting the 2-year-old plans, they showed few, if any, signs that they are any closer to an agreement than when the group commenced meeting almost two months ago.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and supercommittee co-chairman, said he agreed the committee should “go big.” But he added that his definition of going big centers on “fundamental and structural reforms” of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Meanwhile, the panel’s other co-chairman, Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, pressed for a “balanced deal that doesn’t just fall on the middle class and most vulnerable Americans, but that requires big corporations and the wealthiest among us to share in the sacrifice.”

The biggest roadblock facing the panel is tax reform. Democrats have pushed for increased tax revenue, while Republicans have been steadfast in their opposition to any tax increases.

Supercommittee Democrats last week proposed a $3 trillion debt-reduction plan that would include about $1.3 trillion in tax increases, plus about the same amount in spending cuts, and billions more in non-tax revenue.

Republicans on the panel countered with a plan that would reduce the debt by about $2 trillion without raising taxes.

There was little evidence Tuesday to suggest a unified plan is seriously in the works.

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