MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Tomorrow, we'll hear yet another bipartisan plan for how to bring down the national debt and restore balance to our fiscal policy. Only last week, the heads of President Obama's debt commission released their own report. That effort was bipartisan, both in the political leanings of its co-chairs and in the fact that the report offended people on both sides of the aisle.
NPR's Mara Liasson reports now on where this contentious debate is heading.
MARA LIASSON: The big subject of the moment in Washington is the debt and the deficit. There's wide agreement that the current fiscal situation is unsustainable; spending is increasing faster than the economy or tax revenues can grow. Exit polls in the midterms showed that, along with jobs, this is a top concern for voters.
But there's no agreement on how to solve the problem, says former Clinton Budget Director Alice Rivlin, the only person who's serving on all three of the deficit panels that will present reports over the next few weeks.
Dr. ALICE RIVLIN (Former Budget Director, White House): I think the public doesn't understand the choices very well yet. And that's because in the election, there were a lot of people saying: It's really easy, just do this one simple thing; just cut the spending or just raise the taxes or just cut out waste, fraud and abuse.
But if you sit down with the numbers and look at what the government actually does and how it pays for it, it's obvious that there is no simple solution.
LIASSON: The proposal Rivlin's bipartisan task force will unveil tomorrow, like the one the chairman of the president's deficit commission released last week, has something for everyone to hate: Spending cuts and tax hikes. And it will probably be attacked the same way that first proposal was, by advocates on the left and right.
On one side of the fight is Democratic congressional leader Nancy Pelosi, who called the proposal simply unacceptable, and Roger Hickey of the labor-backed Campaign for America's Future. He sees the deficit commissions as a trap for Democrats.
Mr. ROGER HICKEY (Campaign for America's Future): Starting this deficit commission has shifted the entire discussion away from how do you get jobs to how do you get deficits under control. It would be the worst thing in the world for the Democrats to allow conservatives to mousetrap them into embracing cuts - Draconian cuts, really, to Social Security.
LIASSON: While Republican congressional leaders were relatively silent, conservative activists were not. Grover Norquist, whose no new taxes pledge has been signed by hundreds of office holders, also says the proposals are a trap, but for Republicans.
Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (Americans for Tax Reform): The deficit is what Democrats talk about when they're trying to shift the conversation from their spending. The problem is spending. You could only fix a spending problem by spending less. Raising taxes is being an enabler, not helping to reduce the spending problem.
LIASSON: President Obama sees himself somewhere in the middle. He's always said he doesn't want to kick the can down the road on these fiscal issues. Here's what he told "60 Minutes" shortly after the midterm elections.
(Soundbite of show, "60 Minutes")
President BARACK OBAMA: If you eliminate all the earmarks, you eliminate all the foreign aid, you eliminate all the waste and abuse that people, you know, talk about eliminating, you're still confronted with the fact that the vast majority of the federal budget are things that people really think are important, like Social Security and Medicare and defense. And so you then have to start making some tough decisions about, how do we pay for those things that we think are important?
LIASSON: Right now there's not a constituency for those tough decisions, but there is an effort to create one. The Peterson Foundation is trying to educate people about the dangers of the growing debt with this ad starring a fake presidential candidate.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Man: I'm Hugh Jidette.
LIASSON: Get it? Huge debt.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Man: I promise your taxes will help build roads, bridges and schools. Oh, not here - overseas. I'll keep using your taxes to pay over $100 billion a year in interest to foreign lenders - helping their economy, hurting ours. I'm Hugh Jidette. Let's keep borrowing.
(Soundbite of music)
LIASSON: Implicit in all the deficit reduction proposals is a challenge to groups on both the left and right - to come up with alternatives to the recommendations they oppose.
Roger Hickey says his group plans to do just that.
Mr. HICKEY: We are taking up the challenge that if you don't like what we're proposing - and we don't, we really don't - what are you going to do about the economy? And what are you going to do about the deficit?
I'm happy to announce that with all of these right-wing commissions, we at the Campaign for America's Future, we are going to come out with our own report on how you get deficits under control by growing the economy and investing in the future.
LIASSON: While there may be no resolution to this debate anytime soon, the issue is set to be the next big conversation in American politics. It's the kind of thing elections are supposed to be about. It wasn't the subject of the one we just had - maybe it will be for the next one.
Mara Liasson, NPR New, the White House.
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