Debt Commission Recommends Shared Sacrifices
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
This was the original plan to reduce the federal deficit.
INSKEEP: It's considered just too hard for members of Congress to vote on unpopular tax increases or spending cuts, so they were going to pass the job to a special bipartisan commission. As long as 14 of 18 members agreed, they could pass a plan on to Congress which would then have political cover to approve it.
MONTAGNE: That was the plan. But even members of the commission seem reluctant to sign on.
Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON: Reducing the nation's spiraling debt is supposed to be a top priority for voters, but polls show that voters reject almost every specific measure that would actually reduce the deficit. And the commission's plan -called the Moment of Truth - is filled with examples of politically unpopular shared sacrifice. It caps spending on domestic and military programs, it lowers income tax rates but also limits popular tax breaks, including the mortgage interest deduction, and it raises Social Security payroll taxes for the wealthy.
The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee - both commission members - said they would support the plan, but only one of them, North Dakota's Kent Conrad, will be in Congress next year.
Representative KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): Even those who announced today that they won't support the result have made very clear that they agree with the premise that America must act to get its debt under control. Otherwise we risk the United States becoming a second-rate economic power. That is what is at stake. The economic future of this country is at stake.
LIASSON: Some people might call Conrad a profile in courage - he's up for re-election in 2012. But around half a dozen other Democratic and Republican members of Congress on the commission were already retreating to the familiar partisan positions that lead to gridlock.
Democrat Jan Schakowsky will vote no. She doesn't like the cuts in Social Security. She has her own plan that reduces the deficit mostly by raising taxes on the rich and cutting the defense budget. Representative Paul Ryan, the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, also has his own deficit reduction plan. But yesterday he stuck with the Republican Party line, telling the co-chairs even though their plan ramps up the cost savings in the new health care law, he wants the law repealed.
Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): I understand the position you all were put in. You're the president's appointees to create this commission and he just passed through a health care law that I'm sure you weren't going to want to undo, and I understand that. But that doesn't mean that those of us who have a problem with that law want to sign up for something that we think advances that law.
LIASSON: But Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who probably won't vote yes, was willing to disappoint his progressive base by embracing one of the plan's proposals.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat. Illinois): I'm going to say something now that is heretical on the left and they won't like me for saying it, but what you have suggested in increasing the Social Security retirement age is acceptable to me. To raise it one year over 40 years is hardly radical. To raise it two years over 65 years is not radical.
LIASSON: The strongest support, not surprisingly, came from the non-politicians on the panel. Honeywell CEO Dave Cote practically begged members of Congress to come together to solve this urgent problem.
Mr. DAVE COTE (CEO, Honeywell): We're being watched by countries who consider us past our prime because we can no longer rally as Americans to accomplish the tough things. As a country, we need to stop the demagoguing, where everyone just runs to their neutral corner and yells and screams at the other guys.
LIASSON: Cote said that if politicians can't solve the debt problem, it will be solved for them by our foreign creditors.
Mr. COTE: We can wait for the bond market to force it upon us, and that will be decidedly harder, more abrupt and unpleasant. We can ask Greece and Ireland what that's like, and soon Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Think about it this way. About four trillion of our debt today, about 45 percent, is money loaned to us by foreign countries with a trillion dollars of it loaned to us by China. What happens when they don't want to loan us any more money?
LIASSON: Interest rates shoot up dramatically. That's what happens. Tomorrow, the commission will vote. The more yes votes the plan gets, the harder it will be for its recommendations to be ignored. As co-chair Erskine Bowles said, the era of deficit denial in Washington is over. And that may be true, but now Congress and the president have to do something about it.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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