- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2010

The chairman of the Senate budget committee on Sunday called on the White House to hold a summit to tackle the federal deficit, saying it is the next logical step in getting the nation’s financial house in order.

Coming off a week in which President Obama’s deficit commission released recommendations of unpopular spending cuts and tax increases, Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said, “If we’re going to reach conclusion, we’ve got to have the leaders of the House and the Senate, Republican and Democrat, and the president or his representatives at the table.”

Mr. Conrad, a member of the deficit commission who appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” said, “I think it is critically important for the country that we send a signal that we’re going to do something serious about this debt. We are borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend. That can’t continue much longer.”

He said the Treasury secretary and the head of the Office of Management and Budget should be part of the summit. As of Sunday, he had not spoken directly with Mr. Obama about the summit but had talked with administration officials, who were noncommittal about the idea.

Others have expressed interest in the proposal.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, one of the three Republican House members on the deficit commission to vote against the plan, said on Fox that he would support a White House summit.

“We have to have presidential leadership on this, and I hope we get that from President Obama,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, suggested on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he also supports such an idea.

“The message to us coming out of this deficit reduction report is it’s time for the president of the United States and people like John Boehner and myself and others, to sit down and talk about what we can do to make sure that we have the same kind of country for our children and our grandchildren that our parents left for us,” Mr. McConnell said.

Mr. Conrad floated the idea to reporters after the 18-member commission wrapped up its work Friday. Dubbed “The Moment of Truth,” the report calls for substantial spending cuts to domestic and military programs and longer-term reductions in Social Security benefits and health care spending.

It urged lawmakers to simplify the tax code by eliminating popular tax breaks to help offset the cost of lowering individual and corporate tax rates. It also endorsed freezing federal pay for three years, reducing the federal work force by 200,000 through attrition and banning congressional earmarks.

While the 18-member commission applauded the work of the chairmen — former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, Wyoming Republican, and Erskine Bowles, a Democrat and chief of staff to President Clinton — the panel approved the report by an 11-7 margin. When Mr. Obama established the commission in February, his executive order said that 14 of 18 members must support the plan in order for the chairmen’s recommendations to be sent to Congress.

Opponents of the plan — three Republican lawmakers, three Democratic lawmakers and Andrew Stern, the former head of the Service Employees International Union, whom Mr. Obama personally tapped for the panel — made familiar arguments against the proposal’s tax increases and substantial cuts to sacred cows such as Social Security and Medicare.

Despite the result, Mr. Conrad and other members of the commission say they are confident that the recommendations helped renew the debate over how to put an end to the trillion-dollar annual deficits and pay down the nation’s $13.8 trillion debt.

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

Deficit hawks also were cheered by the majority vote and by the fact that several prominent commission members had voted in favor. They included Mr. Conrad, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, and Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who is one of the chamber’s most outspoken critics of excessive federal spending.

Speaking Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Mr. Durbin said, “I think a large part of [the proposal] will go through.”

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