Consensus Eludes Debt Commission; Vote Postponed

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President Obama's bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is meeting Wednesday to unveil its plan to dramatically cut the deficit.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

President Obama's debt commission has released its recommendations for cutting the federal budget. A vote on the plan was supposed to happen today, December 1st. That's been postponed. Members of this bipartisan commission are struggling to find consensus on the proposal. There are 18 members, 14 of them are supposed to agree. And they've given themselves until Friday to decide if they can do that.

NPR's Mara Liasson has been following this story. She's with us live in the studios. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. What do they want to do?

LIASSON: What they want to do is get rid of the deficit by bringing spending in line with tax revenue, which sounds pretty simple and basic but it's very hard to do. They want to get - cap tax revenue at 21 percent of GDP and get spending down to 22 and then eventually to 21. They do that by getting rid of a lot of spending. They want to lower tax rates but broaden the base, meaning get rid of a lot of tax expenditures, those very popular things like mortgage interest deductions and the employer-provided health benefit tax exclusion, get rid of that and everybody can pay lower income tax rates. They would have the highest rate to 29 percent.

They also want to have a global cap on health care spending, federal health care spending of GDP plus one percent. These are big changes. As the chairman of the commission said today, they're all painful but they're all necessary. For all those people who say they want to cut the deficit, this is one way to do it.

INSKEEP: Okay. So you eliminate a lot of government programs, eliminate a bunch of them, entirely. You try to restrain health care spending, restrain the growth of health care spending. You reworked the tax codes so the people may end up paying more - but perhaps they feel better about it. Let's listen to one of the co-chairman who has made this proposal, former Republican senator Alan Simpson, a colorful gentleman and forceful speaker. Let's listen to what he says may happen now.

Mr. ALAN SIMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Wyoming): Poised outside of this chamber are the denizens of darkness. I think the workers of the dark arts - in words of Harry Potter - those are the groups waiting out there in temples around the city to shred this baby to bits.

INSKEEP: Okay, Mara Liasson, who are the denizens of darkness waiting in temples around Washington, D.C.?

LIASSON: I would say they are every single special interest that says, oh, we want to cut the deficit, but please don't touch Social Security, don't ever raise taxes, dont cut any federal spending. I mean, those are the denizens of darkness. Every one of them has a specific thing that they care about more than cutting the deficit, like maintaining some kind of tax break or a federal program.

INSKEEP: And those are big public things, like Social Security or broad tax cuts and various...

LIASSON: Or some are very narrow and non-public that we don't even know about, but they cost money. Those tax expenditures, by the way, those special tax breaks which by the way these - the chairman considers spending, and a lot of Republicans are coming around to that view, too, are about $1 trillion.

INSKEEP: One trillion dollars in tax deductions, ranging from the mortgage deduction on your house or my house to any number of (unintelligible)...

LIASSON: To any number.

INSKEEP: ...you've never heard of. Now, there are 12 current members of Congress, House and Senate members, on this panel, Republicans as well as Democrats. It seems like at least as of a day or so ago, not one of them had signed on to this proposal?

LIASSON: Not one of them, which is extraordinary. This tells us how much appetite there is for really walking the walk as opposed to talking the talk. If you can't get any elected officials on this commission - currently sitting, not retiring ones - to vote for this, that tells you that they are putting their finger to the wind. And what they know is what the polls tell us, which is that every one of these single, specific solutions, tax hikes or spending cuts, is unpopular. In the polls, they're like 60/40 unpopular, almost every single one of them. Now, cutting the deficit is fantastically popular -everybody wants that - but nobody wants to participate in the shared sacrifice that it would take.

INSKEEP: Is there any appetite for at least getting the deficit down? Not balancing it, but at least getting it down to manageable...

LIASSON: That's all they're talking about is getting it down. They're not talking about balancing it all of a sudden with one fell swoop. They're talking about doing this gradually as the economy improves. No, this is about getting the deficit down. Even that requires shared sacrifice, and it's going to take leadership to educate the public about why this is such a big crisis, and why shared sacrifice is necessary. And it's unclear, yet, whether there's anyone in Washington willing to do that.

INSKEEP: Well, we'll see how far they get this week. Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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