Members Of Debt Panel Stake Out Positions

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The president's bipartisan debt commission met Wednesday. While they postponed the vote on the final proposal, panel members began staking out their positions.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, host:

And I'm Guy Raz.

The president's bipartisanship commission on fiscal reform turned in a revised blueprint today. It would slash nearly $4 trillion from the federal deficit in less than a decade, but only two of the commission's 12 lawmakers supported the plan at a meeting today. We'll hear from one of them in a moment. The good news for the commission's co-chairmen is that an official vote on the plan doesn't come until Friday.

NPR's John Ydstie reports.

JOHN YDSTIE: The co-chairmen of the commission - former Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff in the Clinton White House - have already declared the commission a success. Bowles said yesterday it has ended the era of deficit denial in Washington. But it was clear from Simpson's opening remarks that today was about getting votes.

Mr. ALAN SIMPSON (Co-chair, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform): These are tough times, requiring tough decisions and indeed tough votes.

YDSTIE: The revised proposal put before the 18 commission members today was a slightly changed version of the co-chairmen's original plan put out a couple of weeks ago. It took flak from both Democrats and Republicans. Most prominently, the new draft softens the blow to homeowners. Instead of eliminating the popular tax deduction for mortgage interest completely, it replaces it with a limited tax credit. But the most controversial tax increases and spending cuts in the original proposal remain.

Commission member Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said there are things he likes and things he intensely dislikes in the proposal, but he says he's supporting it because there's no alternative.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota; Chairman, Senate Budget Committee): We are borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that we spend in this country. That is not sustainable. We are headed for a fiscal cliff. America is in danger. And we can either look the other way, hope somebody else does something, or we can act.

YDSTIE: Support from Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, is not surprising since he and Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire urged President Obama to launch the commission. Both felt Congress would not act to control dangerous deficits without an outside push. Today, Gregg pledged his support for the plan, too.

But none of the other 10 members of Congress on the panel offered their support today. One, Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, said no. She's concerned that cuts called for in Social Security, Medicare and other programs will hurt vulnerable Americans.

Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): We're going to see programs cut that help to address the problem of those people who have not been part of the party that the wealthiest Americans have benefited from over the years, and so I cannot support this proposal.

YDSTIE: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois also voiced concern about the fairness of the sacrifices called for, but he did offer support for the plan's contentious changes to Social Security, including raising the retirement age to 69 by 2070.

Republicans praised a provision in the plan that would reduce overall tax rates for both individuals and corporations, but they noted elimination of many tax deductions would actually mean Americans pay more in taxes under the plan. That didn't sit well with Texas Representative Jeb Hensarling.

Representative JEB HENSARLING (Republican, Texas): If taxes are going to be put on the table, I believe health care is going to have to be put on the table. If health care is not on the table, you're not fixing the problem.

YDSTIE: Republicans want a chance to undo President Obama's health care plan, which they think will add to deficits, despite official estimates to the contrary.

By the end of the meeting, the chairmen had gotten only seven of the 14 votes needed to trigger a vote on the commission's deficit reduction plan in Congress. The final vote comes on Friday.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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