WASHINGTON (AP) - Even members of President Barack Obama's
bipartisan fiscal commission admit the near impossibility of their
task: finding a consensus by next fall for reducing federal
deficits that threaten to erode Americans' standard of living.
The most obvious solutions, higher taxes or fewer government
benefits, are the most toxic - one reason the 18-member panel has
instructions to deliver its recommendations after the November
The commission begins work Tuesday with a charge to produce a
deficit no bigger than $550 billion by 2015, an amount equal to
about 3 percent of the total U.S. economy. That would require
deficit savings in the range of $250 billion or more.
"This is a suicide mission," the panel's co-chairman, former
Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., said on "Fox News Sunday."
The deficit has turned alarmingly worse since the recession that
started at the end of 2007. The red ink totaled $1.4 trillion last
year. Many projections show it never dipping below 4 percent of the
economy over the next decade. Deficits that size are unsustainable,
economists say. They would put upward pressure on interest rates,
crowd out private investment and ultimately erode living standards.
But the options for curbing the deficit - cutting spending on
popular entitlement programs and broad-based tax increases - are so
politically toxic that the only way Obama and his Democratic allies
controlling Congress are willing to take them on during this
midterm election year is through the commission.
The panel is structured so bipartisanship is required if it is
to deliver a plan for a vote during a postelection, lame-duck
session of Congress in December. Fourteen of 18 members are
required to produce a plan, which means at least half of the
commission's eight Republicans would have to endorse it.
The hope is that the commission can insulate itself from
politics and that the requirement for bipartisanship would give
both sides political cover. With few exceptions, most successful
deficit reduction efforts have been bipartisan.
"Let's see if we can persuade people to trust each other, come
together, and really take some of these tough stands to bring down
spending," the panel's other co-chairman, Erskine Bowles, said on
"Fox News Sunday." "Everything has to be on the table, whether
it's revenue or spending. I personally would like to go after
Bowles, who was former President Bill Clinton's White House
chief of staff, and Simpson are pragmatists, but most of the
Republican lawmakers named to the panel are die-hard anti-tax
conservatives, such as Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Rep. Jeb
Republicans haven't supported a tax increase since President
George H.W. Bush broke his "Read my lips: No new taxes" pledge in
1990 - a move that painfully divided the party. The GOP has moved
steadily to the right since, and is wooing the support of anti-tax
tea party activists in the fall election.
"Americans are right to be concerned that this commission is
merely a front to provide Democrats with the political cover they
need to impose massive tax hikes," said House Minority Leader John
The commission's Democratic members are a mix of deficit hawks,
such as former Clinton White House budget director Alice Rivlin and
Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and liberals such as Rep. Jan
Schakowsky of Illinois and Andy Stern, outgoing president of the
Service Employees International Union. They're unlikely to accept
benefit cuts without accompanying tax increases.
Already, interest groups on the left are weighing in, urging
Democrats to avoid cutting spending on popular benefit programs
like Social Security and Medicare.
"Simply put, Social Security has not contributed one thin dime
to the current deficit. It should not be used as a piggy bank to
pay our way out of the fiscal hole we find ourselves in," said
Barbara Kennelly, president of the National Committee to Preserve
Social Security and Medicare.
There hasn't been a significant deficit-cutting effort since
1997, when a GOP-led Congress and newly re-elected Clinton came
together to produce a balanced budget plan combining a relatively
painless set of spending cuts with tax cuts sought by Republicans
and a new children's health plan embraced by both parties. That
deal was greatly helped by improving deficit projections.
But the fiscal gap confronting the commission is considerably
more daunting. Executive Director Bruce Reed says the debt panel
will try to close the 2015 budget deficit from the $793 billion
projected by the Congressional Budget Office for Obama's budget
down to $520 billion or so.
Obama will meet privately with the panel for 20 minutes or so
and make brief remarks afterward. Federal Reserve Board Chairman
Ben Bernanke will also address the panel.