Federal Deficit Panel Efforts Reach Critical Stage

Efforts of a presidential commission to come up with a bipartisan plan to rein in big federal budget deficits are reaching a critical stage. Robert Siegel talks to NPR'S John Ydstie on today's deficit commission meeting.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Efforts to forge a bipartisan plan to rein in the federal deficit are reaching a critical stage. Today, the co-chairmen of President Obama's budget commission - former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and President Clinton's former chief of staff Erskine Bowles - said they are delaying a vote on their plan until Friday. The vote was supposed to have happened tomorrow. During a news conference this afternoon, Bowles said no matter what happens with the vote, the commission has achieved a lot.

Mr. ERSKINE BOWLES (Co-chair, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform): Al and I couldn't be happier with where we are in the process. Regardless of how the vote turns out, I think we've won, and we've won big. The era of deficit denial in Washington is over.

SIEGEL: That's what Erskine Bowles said.

NPR economics correspondent John Ydstie has been following developments and joins us now.

So, John, why the delay in the vote?

JOHN YDSTIE: Well, the chairmen have been scrambling to line up votes, and the deadline set by the president's executive order came just a little too early to finish things up. That's partly because a plan that the co-chairmen unveiled a couple of weeks ago took a lot of flak from both the left and the right. They modified it over Thanksgiving and have been meeting individually with members of the commission in the past couple of days trying to drum up support.

They haven't had time to put all of the adjustments they've made into print. They hope to have a version sometime tonight or early tomorrow morning that they'll give to commission members. And then the commission will meet in public tomorrow to discuss it, but the chairmen decided they wanted to wait for a vote until Friday.

SIEGEL: But these changes to the original plan that Simpson and Bowles put out, do we know what the changes are?

YDSTIE: No. The chairmen wouldn't reveal the changes today, but Erskine Bowles did say this.

Mr. BOWLES: The plan we submit tomorrow - you ask about the differences - it's not going be some watered-down version of a chairman's mark; that I can guarantee you.

YDSTIE: And a chairman's mark is Washington language, of course, for a chairman's proposal. And the original chairman's proposal that Bowles and Simpson put on the table was very controversial. It would have cut projected deficits by $3.8 trillion over the next nine years. That would have been done with a combination of cuts in defense spending, cuts in Social Security benefits for high-income people, controlling expenditures in Medicare and Medicaid, also there would have been equally controversial tax increases, including eliminating the deduction of mortgage interest. So if it's not going to be watered down, the modified proposal is likely to be quite controversial.

SIEGEL: Still very controversial.

YDSTIE: Right.

SIEGEL: Now, as we've reported before, this commission, it's bipartisan. It has 18 members, and the president's executive order says that the plan - assuming there is a plan - needs to get 14 of those 18 votes for the plan to be approved. Does that appear likely right now?

YDSTIE: No. I think it's unlikely they'll get 14 votes, but that specific number is less significant now than it was when the commission was formed. You may remember that the time - at that time, House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid had pledged that if the commission's plan got 14 votes from the 18 members of the panel, it would trigger a vote on the deficit reduction proposal in Congress.

Of course, the new Congress will have a new Republican speaker next year who's not bound by Pelosi's pledge, so the number 14 becomes less meaningful. So I think it's more important that the co-chairmen get nine or 10 votes, including both Democrats and Republican to back the plan...

SIEGEL: Right.

YDSTIE: ...that way it could become the basis for a congressional plan.

SIEGEL: So as for 14, we don't have 14. How about nine or 10? Is that possible?

YDSTIE: Well, there's still a lot of doubt about that. Although on the other hand, one very experienced hand at this stuff, Alice Rivlin, who participated in deals that actually helped balance the budget back in the 1990s, says she's optimistic the commission can move the ball forward.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, John.

YDSTIE: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: NPR economics correspondent John Ydstie.

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