- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2010

President Obama’s high-profile debt commission Friday fell three votes short of the support it needed to forward a far-reaching deficit reduction plan to Congress, with 11 of the 18 members voting to back the proposal. A supermajority of 14 votes was needed to formally endorse the blueprint.

The final tally became a foregone conclusion Thursday night after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, and Andrew Stern, the former head of the Service Employee’s International Union and one of Mr. Obama’s personal picks for bipartisan commission, announced their opposition to the proposal.

Despite achieving a majority vote in support that many thought unlikely just a few weeks ago, the math made it impossible for the plan to gain the support of 14 of the commissioners, which Mr. Obama demanded in his February executive order establishing the panel. The plan combined deep spending cuts, some tax increases, the elimination of popular tax breaks and longer-term reductions in Social Security benefits and health care spending.

While the vote put a damper on the commission’s plan, the chairmen, former Senator Alan K. Simpson, a Republican, and Erskine Bowles, a Democrat and the former chief of staff to President Clinton, remained upbeat, saying their report has started an “adult conversation” over the trillion-dollar deficits and $13.8 trillion national debt that will drive the dialogue going forward.

“We took a big banana and threw it into the gorilla cage,” Mr. Simpson told the panel. “The gorilla has picked it up and like they do, they peel it, play with it, but they will eat some.”

Mr. Bowles repeated his call to Congress and the president to put aside partisan difference, “make the tough choices” and “eliminate these dreadful deficits.”

Despite falling short, deficit hawks said they were cheered by the majority vote and by the fact that several prominent commission members had voted in favor, including Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, and Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who is one of the chamber’s most outspoken critics of excessive federal spending. Mr. Durbin was one of a number of panelists who said he did not agree with all the recommendations in the report, but thought the plan could be the basis for a sustained attack on the deficit in the next Congress.

Mr. Obama, who was making an unannounced visit to Afghanistan as the panel voted Friday morning, released a statement that said the commission “met the charge that I gave them: to bring our deficits down in the medium term and to meaningfully improve our long-run fiscal situation so that we can keep commitments made to future generations.”

While commission members said they agreed that ballooning interest from the nation’s mounting red ink threatens to drown the economy by 2020, it became increasingly clear that they did not agree on the combination of revenue increases and spending cuts needed to address the problem.

Opponents of the plan — three Republican lawmakers, three Democratic lawmakers and Mr. Stern — fell back on familiar arguments against the proposal’s tax increases and substantial cuts to sacred cows such as Social Security and Medicare.

Democrats suggested that the plan’s strategy to tackle the debt problem, which in part was been driven by unfunded wars, tax cuts and the prescription drug plan passed under President Bush, put too heavy a burden on the backs of people who need government most.

They also criticized plans push to make Social Security solvent by gradually raising the retirement age for future enrollees and reducing benefits.

“There is no need to cut benefits to Social Security,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat and opponent of the plan.

Republicans, meanwhile, said little Friday morning, but have disagreed with the proposed tax increases in the plan and argued that more must be done to tackle increasing health care costs.

During the meeting, the plan received a boost, as 14 senators called on the White House and Congressional leaders to push forward to address the fiscal challenges of the nation regardless of the commission’s final vote.

“The strong bipartisan support [the Commission’s] recommendations have already received demonstrated we can, and must, come together to solve this impending fiscal crisis,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “Every day that we fail to act, the choices become more difficult.”

Senators who signed the letter included Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Jon Tester of Montana and independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

Despite the defeat, parts of the plan are likely to resurface next year.

“It will be resurrected because it must be,” said Mr. Conrad.

More than anything else, the effort appears to have breathed new life into reforming the tax system by simplifying the code, broadening the tax base and reducing income tax rates.

The proposal called for eliminating or scaling back $1.1 trillion in annual tax breaks to help offset the cost of lowering individual and corporate tax rates.

Under the plan, corporate tax rate would fall from 35 percent to 26 percent and the six individual income tax rates (currently ranging from 10 percent to 35 percent annually) would be reduced to just three brackets: 8 percent up to $70,000; 14 percent up to $210,000; and 23 percent for people earning more.

“We are doing something here to make America more competitive to create more jobs, and hallelujah for that,” Mr. Conrad said. “That is a leadership position that I think will be recognized in any plan that comes forward in the future.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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