Commission Delays Vote On Debt-Cutting Plan

This was supposed to be the day that President Obama's deficit commission voted on a plan to make dramatic cuts in the deficit. But the vote has been postponed until Friday, so the 18 members of the panel can discuss a final proposal developed by the commission's co-chairmen.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

President Obama's debt commission was supposed to vote today on a plan to make dramatic cuts in the federal government deficit. That vote has been postponed, as members of the bipartisan commission struggle to find consensus on the proposals. They now have until Friday to review the plan and decide whether to support it.

NPR's John Ydstie has been following this story, and joins us now to talk about it. Good morning.

JOHN YDSTIE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So the commission's chairmen, two of them, came up with a draft proposal last month that was criticized by both the right and the left. Remind us what was in that proposal, and do we know at this point what's changed?

YDSTIE: Well, the information we have suggests that there are only minor changes from the original proposal that was to cut $3.8 trillion from projected deficits, over the next nine years. Yesterday, the chairmen confirmed that their modified proposal would still raise the Social Security retirement age, eliminate the mortgage interest deduction, and also lower overall tax rates significantly.

Big cuts in defense spending, controls on Medicare spending, and a 10 percent reduction in the federal workforce appear to also be intact from the original proposal.

During a news conference yesterday, Co-Chairman Erskine Bowles said there's no question the options before the commission are painful.

Mr. ERSKINE BOWLES (Co-Chairman, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform): There are plenty of reasons not to vote for this plan. But one thing is certain: The problem is real, the solutions are painful, and there are no easy choices.

MONTAGNE: Again, that's Erskine Bowles of the president's deficit reduction commission.

And, John, what's expected to happen now?

YDSTIE: Well, Renee, the chairmen will put this final proposal before the 18 members of the panel today. Twelve of those members are members of Congress -half Democrat, half Republican. Most won't have seen the final product fully before, so there will be some explanation from Simpson - Alan Simpson, the other co-chairman and Bowles - on the provisions and changes they've made.

Then there will be a chance for discussion by the members themselves. And I would guess you'll get some strong opposition to changes in Social Security from members like Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois. She told me yesterday she wouldn't vote for a plan that cut Social Security benefits.

And I would also guess you'll get some opposition from some conservatives like Republican congressman Jeb Hensarling from Texas, to some of the revenue increases in big defense cuts in the plan.

So it should be a spirited discussion.

MONTAGNE: Right, and there are 12 current lawmakers on the commission, meaning they have to worry about re-election. I mean, are they likely to support the plan? And if they don't - as some say, they might not - what happens?

YDSTIE: Well, yesterday during their news conference, Simpson and Bowles said they might get two votes, maybe 10 votes, maybe 14. They said they just didn't know. And so far, no member of Congress has expressed support. And Im sure delaying the vote is aimed at getting some commitments.

Now, getting 14 of the 18 votes is necessary to trigger a vote on the proposal in Congress. But that's a little less important that it was originally, because it was House speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid who agreed to put the commission's proposal to a vote, if it got 14 votes at the commission. But of course, there's a new speaker next year, Republican John Boehner, who hasn't made that pledge.

I was talking yesterday to commission member Alice Rivlin, a former Clinton administration budget director. She said if they get a few Democrats and a few Republicans to go along, maybe nine or 10 votes, it could still have a real impact in Congress.

MONTAGNE: And John - very briefly - bottom line, is Congress ready to deal with this issue?

YDSTIE: Well, that's what congressional leaders suggested yesterday at the White House. And certainly, politicians saw it as part of the Election Day message. Chairman Bowles said yesterday: No matter what happens, the commission has achieved its goal. He said that the days of deficit denial...

MONTAGNE: John...

YDSTIE: ... in Washington are over.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR's John Ydstie.

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