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Super Committee Urged to ‘Go Big’ on Deficit Cuts

November 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
There are just over three weeks to go until the Congressional Super Committee's deficit reduction report is due. Kwame Holman provides an update on the progress.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now two takes on the struggle to find common ground on tough budget issues.

We begin in Washington, where, on Capitol Hill today, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction held its fourth public hearing.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our update.

KWAME HOLMAN: With just more than three weeks to go, the deficit super committee is hearing rising calls to go big on rolling back the red ink. That message was reinforced today by the co-chairs of President Obama’s deficit reduction commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, and the co-leaders of a separate task force, Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici.

Bowles was chief of staff in the Clinton White House. He and Simpson want nearly $4 trillion in deficit cuts over the course of a decade.

ERSKINE BOWLES, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility And Reform: We didn’t make $4 trillion up because the number four bus rode down the street — $4 trillion is not the maximum amount we need to reduce the deficit. It’s not the ideal amount. It is the minimum amount we need to reduce the deficit in order to stabilize the debt.

KWAME HOLMAN: Rivlin was director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration. She, too, urged the committee to set $4 trillion as a target.

ALICE RIVLIN, former Congressional Budget Office director: To achieve success, the committee will have to go well beyond the minimum charge of $1.2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years, because even savings of this magnitude would leave the debt rising faster than the economy can grow.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the Republican side, former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici called for the super committee to tackle entitlement programs and tax reform.

PETE DOMENICI, (R) former U.S. senator: Now, let me be blunt. A plan that does not fundamentally restructure Medicare and other health entitlements will fail to adequately address the debt crisis that we face. Both sides, those who are against any fundamental health entitlement reform and those who oppose any revenue increases will be equally complicit in bringing the nation closer to the fiscal brink. I hope you heard that.

KWAME HOLMAN: And fellow Republican former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson talked up the need to give up various tax breaks, and he insisted that’s not a tax increase.

ALAN SIMPSON, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility And Reform: And we said let’s take those, let’s take those, and when you take one of those out, to call that a tax increase is a terminological inexactitude. It would be called a lie, in other words.

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee faces a deadline of Nov. 23 to agree on at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings. If the panel fails to agree, it would trigger automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion defense and non-defense spending, including Medicare.

Appearing yesterday in Louisville, the speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, talked again of a grand bargain and voiced hope the committee will find common ground.

But the Senates’ majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid, accused Republicans today of holding up a grand bargain.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: What I thought would have been really good for the world and the country would be to do the grand bargain, the big deal. It started with Boehner and the president some time ago, the speaker and the president months and months ago. But my friend John Boehner is — wants this grand bargain without any sacrifice to the people that have most of the money in this country.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Reid’s opposite number, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, said the sacrifice also will have to come from areas that many lawmakers don’t want to touch.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., minority leader: We do have differences about the approach, but we know all of our entitlements are in trouble. We know Social Security went into the red for first time this year. This is not spin. This is fact. And we know they’re all going to have to be adjusted at some point, or they’re not going to be there. And my view is, why not now?

KWAME HOLMAN: And at the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said the president still believes in shared sacrifice.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: Everything has to be on the table. It needs to include the kind of discretionary non-defense spending cuts that were implemented, as well as defense spending cuts that were implemented previously by the president and this Congress. It also has to include entitlement reform, and it has to include revenues. There is no other way to do this responsibly.

KWAME HOLMAN: Publicly at least, members of the super committee have yet to identify a way to bridge the partisan divide. The panel will continue meeting in private, but has not set a date for its next open session.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m joined now by Todd Zwillich. He’s Washington correspondent for “The Takeaway” on WNYC Radio and PRI. He was at the hearing today and he has been covering the ongoing budget debate in Congress.

Welcome back, Todd Zwillich.

TODD ZWILLICH, “The Takeaway,” Public Radio International: Good to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it sounded like from Kwame Holman’s report the members of the committee were lectured today.

TODD ZWILLICH: It was a combination lecture. There was some pep talk in there, lots of dire warnings about what the results of failure are.

Those four members in Kwame’s reports, one of my colleagues called them the go-big all-stars. And that’s really what they are, go $4 trillion, get a big deal. And really what that is about, it’s not really about the number. It’s not really about the specific impact on the economy. It’s about confidence.

And Alan Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming, told them that. He said you need a credible deal that the bond markets will respect, that the American people will respect. And that’s really what all this is about is getting people in a tough political environment to make tough decisions, in a politically polarized environment to make a deal and make some tough decisions, and difficult for them politically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, is there any tangible evidence of progress?

TODD ZWILLICH: There is no tangible evidence of progress, but we can’t read too much into that, because the committee has been very, very good at holding its cards close to the chest.

There have been a couple of leaks, but those were tactical leaks. Those were the kind of leaks that members of Congress make in a negotiation when they want to lay their position out or they want to immunize themselves, you know, being reasonable when the other side maybe isn’t being reasonable.

If this ultimately heads for failure and the super committee has to fold its cards and go home, they have made the leaks now that show, each side: We made a credible deal. We want to do deficit reduction.

They have done that. Now, how close are they to the hard deal, which is really when it comes down to it the balance between cutting entitlements vs. tax increases? We really, really don’t know. Some of the reports say not very close at all, but it’s really impossible to know for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what are we to make of — we have Speaker Boehner, which was just referenced there, is calling them to do a grand bargain, even though he walked away from that this summer, he and other Republicans. And then there are these letters from bipartisan members of the House and the Senate this week to the super committee saying, go big.

Is that — bipartisan — is that saying Republicans are coming around on revenue, on tax increases?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, it might say that partly, but you have to parse a little bit, because there’s a lot of cryptology in this.

It says that everybody wants to be on the page of going big, because going big has become the only acceptable political outcome. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles said it’s the only acceptable outcome for the markets. And all of these other members, including the speaker, are either trying to immunize themselves as being for the responsible thing, or really legitimately trying to pressure the committee to go big because they want them to.

Now, you asked about revenue. Democrats have drawn their line in the sand, saying, we already cut a lot of discretionary spending in the last round of debt reduction that took place over the summer, when it was tied to the debt limit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. Right.

TODD ZWILLICH: We’re not doing any more of that. And we’re certainly not going to cut Medicare and Social Security if we’re not going to have some give from Republicans on raising taxes.

And that’s where some of the cryptology comes in. Lots of Republicans are for raising revenue, but not in the context of raising taxes. They might be for raising revenue in the context of some broad-based tax reform, where probably not this committee, but the tax-writing committees in Congress at a future time, close in the future, attack the tax code, simplify it, get some revenue out of it, and lower rates and pour it into debt reduction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were telling me that could be some kind of a placeholder in an agreement if they were to reach one, possibly.

TODD ZWILLICH: It’s too big and time is too short for this committee to tackle that. The tax code is too big. They would kick it down the road.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Todd, give us a sense of the pressures on this committee. You have got the Europe debt crisis ongoing, no really strong good news in this country on the economy. How worried are the members about the reaction in the markets and in the public if they don’t reach an agreement?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, that was part of the message from the four today in the super committee, the lack of confidence that Americans will have in their Congress to solve problems.

Erskine Bowles told them that Americans would think — and rightly so — that their Congress is basically a disaster and unable to solve problems. And there were other messages from other members. The Greek debt crisis, the potential unraveling of the European economy and the euro, their economy and our economy are tied together. Everybody knows that.

That only adds to the political pressure that is here domestically on Republicans to not raise taxes. They have drawn very, very hard lines, ideological lines, in this environment about never raising taxes. Democrats on their sides: Don’t go after our sacred cows of Medicare and Social Security, unless the other side gives.

And a little bit of news that I will give you — if you want to know how much they’re worrying about potentially Europe or the economy more broadly, on my way over here, Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner, I spotted him on the way in to the House at the carriage entrance, meeting with members of Congress, getting — so they’re getting briefed by the administration, by the treasury secretary as we speak.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Telling you there’s some worry on the part of the administration and they’re conveying that to these members.

What is the real deadline for this super committee?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, they have a statutory deadline of Nov. 23 to get a plan that would go to the Congress for a vote. The actual deadline is a little bit sooner than that, because the Congressional Budget Office has to evaluate this plan. They have to score it. They have to say, here’s exactly how much the debt would be reduced.

Members of the CBO, the head of the CBO has said he wants to see some numbers by the end of this week. Will that happen? We will see. So, Nov. 23 is their deadline. And then Congress has to vote by Dec. 23, right before Christmas. Congress likes to put hard decisions right up against hard deadlines, like Thanksgiving and Christmas. That stuff is in there for a reason. And those are the deadlines for now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So there’s a sense that realistically they could have something concrete that quickly?

TODD ZWILLICH: There’s a sense that they’re going to have to show whether they can or not. Failure is a possibility. Every leader has said failure is not an option, but of course they can fail. And there are enforcement mechanisms in place to encourage everyone not to fail.

Let’s keep in mind, if this committee can’t reach at least a minimum of $1.2 trillion in debt reduction, there are two swords of Damocles hanging over this thing — for the Democrats, deep cuts to Medicare which they don’t want to see — and for Republicans especially, deep cuts in defense which they don’t want to see and they’re already trying to undo.

Those are the two, they call them enforcement mechanisms encouraging everyone not to fail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for various reasons, both sides are worried about both kinds of cuts.

TODD ZWILLICH: They sure are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Todd Zwillich, thanks very much.

TODD ZWILLICH: My pleasure.