The government continues to spend more money than it takes in. On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office put a number on this year's deficit: a little more than $1.35 trillion. President Obama and Congress agree that something should be done.
But a bipartisan commission that would tackle the deficit was shot down in the Senate on Tuesday, and Obama's proposal to freeze nonmilitary spending for three years is getting a lukewarm reception.
Like a prophet crying out in the wilderness, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) has been admonishing his colleagues for months to empower a commission to make the difficult choices Congress can't seem to make. Conrad's aim is to bring greater balance to the budget by cutting spending and by raising taxes.
"Anybody who says we don't have to do anything, we can just keep on doing what we're doing, has got their head in the sand. Social Security and Medicare are both cash-negative today. They are both headed for insolvency. Those who say we don't have to do anything, they are guaranteeing a disaster," Conrad said.
The 18-member commission Conrad proposed would be made up almost entirely of sitting lawmakers appointed by congressional leaders of both parties and the president. Their recommendations would be voted on by Congress without any amendments, and would only pass with 60 percent of the votes in each chamber. Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the budget panel, joined Conrad in proposing the commission.
"Regular order doesn't work around here," Gregg said. "So unless you have fast-track approval, unless you have an up-or-down vote, unless you have no amendments ... unless you have a balanced commission of a supermajority to report, you don't get bipartisanship, you don't get fairness, and you don't get action."
But Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), who chairs the tax-writing Finance Committee, vehemently opposed the deficit commission. He said lawmakers were elected to make precisely the kind of hard choices needed to cut deficits.
"Regular order does work here. 1990, 1993, 1997, Congress passed reconciliation budget resolutions that worked. And I believe, frankly, that we have it within ourselves as senators to do the same again," Baucus said.
Fifty-three senators voted for the commission, but that was short of the 60 votes it needed to pass. As a fallback, Obama is expected to name such a commission, but Congress would not be bound to vote on its recommendations.
In another move to cut deficits, Obama is expected to announce in his State of the Union address Wednesday a three-year freeze on spending that would exclude defense and entitlement expenditures. The president's proposal got a cool reception Tuesday from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"We'll have to look and see what the president's talking about cutting," Reid said. "We have to make sure that we have money for education. We have to make sure that we have money to take care of our civil society."
Republicans generally hailed the proposed spending freeze as a step in the right direction. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did so, with a caveat.
"I think any indication the administration is trying to reduce its spending is a good thing; but we've been on quite a binge over the last 12 months, and it's going to take a lot more than just this kind of modest freeze to get us back on the right track," McConnell said.
McConnell and other Republicans say one way to rein in spending is not to raise the ceiling on the national debt by $1.9 trillion, as the White House has requested. They'd rather do it in small increments, forcing Democrats to take a series of tough votes this election year.