Both Sides Unhappy with Debt Commission’s Proposals

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National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform co-chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson

National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform co-chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

Voters sent a clear message in this month’s midterm elections: They want their elected officials to do something about the country’s deficit and debt. In fact, exit polls showed 40 percent of voters said the highest priority of the next Congress should be “reducing deficit,” outranking “spending to create jobs” at 37 percent and “cutting taxes” at 18 percent.

So it would seem to reason that lawmakers would want to take a long and serious look at the draft proposal put forward Wednesday by the co-chairs of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. But as soon as it was released, the plan touched off a wave of criticism from the political right and left.

To be certain, there’s something in the report to irk everyone. The plan would cut Social Security and Medicare, raise the retirement age to 69 by 2075, eliminate or curb popular tax breaks such as the mortgage interest deduction and slash military and domestic spending. The steps outlined in the report would reduce the national debt by $4 trillion over the next 10 years.

Commission co-chair Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Clinton, argued the country’s fiscal situation required decisive action. “This debt is like a cancer that will truly destroy this country from within if we don’t fix it,” Bowles warned.

The commission’s other co-chair, former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson said, “We have harpooned every whale in the ocean.”

At a press conference in Seoul, President Obama said that he wouldn’t comment on specifics because he wanted to give the commission space to work.

“I set up this commission precisely because I’m prepared to make some tough decisions,” the president said. “I can’t make them alone. I’m going to need Congress to work with me. There was a lot of talk during the course of this campaign season about debt and deficits. And unfortunately, a lot of the talk didn’t match up with reality. If we are concerned about debt and deficits, then we’re going to have to take actions that are difficult and we’re going to have to tell the truth to the American people.”

President Obama will have a lot of convincing to do with leaders in his own party.

“This proposal is simply unacceptable,” said outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Any final proposal from the Commission should do what is right for our children and grandchildren’s economic security as well as for our nation’s fiscal security, and it must do what is right for our seniors, who are counting on the bedrock promises of Social Security and Medicare. And it must strengthen America’s middle class families–under siege for the last decade, and unable to withstand further encroachment on their economic security.”

The conservative group Americans for Tax Reform issued a statement saying the report proves “this commission is merely an excuse to raise net taxes on the American people. Support for the commission chair plan would be a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge which over 235 Congressmen and 41 Senators have made to their constituents.”

But three Republican members of the commission, Reps. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, were more measured in their response.

“This is a provocative proposal, and while we have concerns with some of their specifics, we commend the co-chairs for advancing the debate. We will continue to work toward solutions that help spur economic growth and restrain the explosive growth of government spending,” the three lawmakers said in a statement.

The 18-member commission is scheduled to issue a final report by Dec. 1. If the commission’s plan attracts the support of 14 of its members, it would proceed to an up-or-down vote by the lame-duck Congress this year.

TRAIN CLASH

Two Republican governors-elect are already clashing with the federal government over federal spending, weeks before they take office.

Ohio Governor-elect John Kasich and Wisconsin Governor-elect Scott Walker both want to use federal stimulus money allocated for trains to pay for road and other improvements. But they are being told by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that they need to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars on trains or they couldn’t use it at all.

“I respect the authority of governors to make decisions for their states,” LaHood said in a letter to Kasich. “If, however, you choose not to participate in the program, we would like to engage in an orderly transition to wind down Ohio’s involvement in the project so that we do not waste taxpayers’ money.”

Walker questioned the rationale for spending on new trains when old infrastructure is failing.

“I believe it is a grave mistake for the federal government to insist on building an unwanted passenger rail system at a time when our roads and bridges are literally crumbling,” Walker wrote to LaHood.

This particular disagreement over stimulus spending is the first in what’s likely to be a series of conflicts between new Republican governors and the Obama administration as the leaders clash over how to govern during hard economic times.

Both Kasich and Walker won jobs previously held by Democrats and both campaigned against building new high-speed rail systems in their states. Ohio was allocated $400 million to begin building a train system that links Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, while Wisconsin has received $810 million to connect Milwaukee and Madison. The money is part of an $8 billion section of the stimulus aimed at creating a high-speed rail network and creating jobs via infrastructure spending.

The New York Times reported that one governor is more than willing to take that money. New York Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo has asked that his state get some of Wisconsin’s train funding if that state doesn’t use it.

THE COUNT GOES ON IN ALASKA

After the first day of counting write-in ballots in the Alaska Senate race, Lisa Murkowski’s re-election chances appear to be in good shape. “Almost 98 percent of write-in ballots” opened Wednesday went to Murkowski, reports the Anchorage Daily News.

Reporter Sean Cockerham breaks down of the vote-counting process:

“It appears as though Miller needs to keep about 12 percent of the write-ins from going for Murkowski. More than 89 percent of the write-ins counted Wednesday were unchallenged votes for Murkowski, and there is a possibility if that trend continues the lawsuit might not even matter.

Another 8.5 percent of the write-in votes opened Wednesday were challenged by Miller ballot observers but awarded to Murkowski. Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai made that call after looking over each of the challenged ballots.

Fenumiai said she accepted minor misspellings. ‘If I can pronounce the name by the way it’s spelled, that’s the standard I’m using,’ Fenumiai said.”

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