Risking Common Ground in a Partisan-Dominated Budget Battle

BY Judy Woodruff  February 17, 2011 at 11:40 AM EDT

It’s just beginning to emerge in public – with hints from a handful of senators about entitlement cuts – but something does appear to be taking shape that would address the debt monster looming over Washington.

This week, the air’s been filled with partisan fury around President Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2012, and the move by House Republicans to make even more dramatic cuts in federal spending THIS year, so it was easy to overlook a quiet but determined effort by a small group of Senators to find common ground.

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As long ago as last summer, while most everyone else was focused on midterm election battles, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia got together to begin to talk about reducing the United States’ national debt. Given that it recently topped $14 trillion, almost as much as the entire economic output of the United States last year ($14.7 trillion), it’s not surprising that elected officials would want to address it.

In a Republican response to one of President Obama’s weekly addresses last July, Chambliss got in a predictable GOP kick at the president for “reckless spending,” and then noted that because “much of America’s debt is being held by other nations – such as China – our national debt is also a national security issue.” He added, “Just as with our energy and food supplies, America is vulnerable when we disproportionately rely on other nations…[especially if they] don’t share our values or positions.”

But there have been few serious attempts to wrestle the debt down, because doing so involves real pain of one sort or another: cuts in popular government programs or tax increases, something most politicians up for re-election find about as appealing as a case of chicken pox. So too have two senators from different parties – Chambliss, a conservative Republican, and Warner, a moderate Democrat – working together on such a charged issue — especially in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the past few years, was enough to raise eyebrows.

But not only did they talk to each other, they persuaded other senators from both parties to join the conversation. What got off to a slow, quiet start in the summer picked up steam in December when the presidentially-appointed Bowles-Simpson deficit commission issued its recommendations.

Titled “The Moment of Truth,” and declaring “America cannot be great if we go broke,” the commission report called for significantly curbing spending in the most costly government programs — defense, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — as well as raising revenue.

Afterward, with support from a separate group of senators who had been meeting to try to keep the commission’s work alive, the bipartisan coalition grew to at least 30 senators, with a small core group meeting regularly. They held their most recent meeting this week and are starting to talk to reporters.

Chambliss described to NPR how reforming the tax code and eliminating tax deductions will increase revenue, something Republicans are normally loathe to discuss. In the same interview, Warner suggested raising the eligibility age for Social Security has to be part of any solution to the long term debt crisis.

Separately, Warner told the Huffington Post that finding compromise will take time: “This is a structural deficit problem and it’s going to take beyond one year’s options to fix.”

And they’re not waiting: with the help of senators Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Kent Conrad, D-N.D., all commission members who supported its recommendations, the push is on to turn some of those key ideas – that President Obama hasn’t yet embraced – into a bill before Congress.

This may have been what the president had in mind at his news conference this week when he defended his decision not to make the first move on entitlement reform himself, by saying it should “be a negotiation process,” and that Republicans and Democrats need to get “in that boat at the same time so we don’t tip over.”

Reading public opinion polls that show most Americans who benefit from government programs – like home mortgage deductions, veterans’ pensions, Medicare and Social Security — often don’t even realize the government is the source. Surveys that outline the reluctance of Americans to accept cuts in their beloved Social Security or Medicare payments illustrate the hurdles. As a poll published in the New York Times shows, it’s clear there’s no guarantee of success for these senators who may be about to put themselves on the line.

But perhaps if an equal number of Democrats and Republicans climb in the boat at the same time, it will stay afloat long enough for there to be a serious conversation, and later agreement, on how to reduce the national debt.

Of course, a robust economic recovery would go a long way toward reducing the debt, as would letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire. But neither is on the immediate horizon, so the tipsy boat is looking like one of the few realistic scenarios for now. With a hot debate coming in a few weeks over raising the legal limit on the size of the national debt, we may know soon how realistic it is.

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