After voting on a bold plan to put the nation's finances on sound footing, the president's debt commission adjourned Friday. While the plan won support from a majority of panel members, it failed to get the 14 votes needed to force congressional action.
The White House says it will study the commission's proposal, but the question now is whether Congress can muster the political will to rein in dangerous deficits.
For the colorful co-chairmen of the presidential commission, the heavy lifting is over. Former Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles can head back to their homes in Wyoming and North Carolina, satisfied that they've put the dangers of big deficits and mounting debt squarely in the minds of the American people. But for the 12 lawmakers on the panel, the work is just beginning.
The Task Now
Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho is one of three conservative Senate Republicans who backed the presidential commission's plan, a plan that would cut projected deficits by about $4 trillion over the next decade. Crapo said not getting the 14 votes does create a hurdle.
"We will not have the ability to force a vote on this specific plan on the floor of the Senate and the House, but it does not mean we will not have the ability to move ahead aggressively," he said.
North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he'll use the commission blueprint as the basis for building a deficit-cutting plan.
"This has the elements of what's required, and it has sufficient size to stabilize the debt and then bring it down over to a sufficient level over time that all economists who came before us say is necessary," he said.
That would be a size small enough to avoid the kind of financial crisis facing European countries that have let their debts grow to mountainous levels.
Holding Their Nose To Vote
Most Democrats and Republicans who supported the commission blueprint, which includes trimming Social Security payments for some retirees and boosting tax revenues significantly, did so with reservations. The opponents, while supporting deficit reduction, all identified one or more items they just couldn't live with.
Among the opponents was Jeb Hansarling, a Republican congressman from Texas, who expressed deep concern about the increase in tax revenue required by the plan.
"If taxes are going to be put on the table, I believe health care's going to have to be put on the table. If health care's not put on the table, you're not fixing the problem," he said.
House Republicans believe President Obama's health care overhaul needs to be on the table because they believe it will drive deficits higher.
On the other side of the aisle, Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky opposed the commission plan because she said it required too much sacrifice from the needy and the middle class and not enough from the wealthy. She argues the deficit struggle already has been joined in the battle over extending the Bush tax cuts.
"If we were to pass tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, we'd be talking about $700 billion more [added] to the debt," she said. "So I think we're in the midst of the nitty-gritty of this very fight."
Putting Aside Political Interests
But ultimately, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said, members need to be willing to compromise and not simply seek political advantage on this important issue.
"America needs to understand there is not a luxury for politics anymore. It is time for us to get our act together," he said. "We're at war on three fronts right now: Iraq, Afghanistan and the financial tsunami that is facing us."
It's remains unclear whether members of Congress are ready to set aside politics even for this issue. The fact that five of six senators on the commission supported the controversial blueprint is a positive sign.
On the other hand, five of six House members on the panel opposed it — a reminder that the prospect of standing for election every two years, as they do, keeps the political imperative ever present.