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Fiscal Commission Report Ignites New Debate Over Tackling Debt

So now maybe we’ll find out who’s serious about attacking the federal debt.

With the proposal released Wednesday by the heads of the bipartisan commission appointed by President Obama to look at ways to tackle the nation’s looming fiscal crisis, it’s going to be harder for lawmakers to take a pass when asked what they would do.

By proposing $ 3.8 trillion dollars in spending reductions by 2020 – either through program cuts or tax increases – former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles have in effect rolled a live grenade into the debate over the deficit.

Three-fourths of the reductions would come in the form of cuts to politically sacrosanct programs like defense, Social Security, Medicare and farm subsidies. The final quarter would materialize by raising the gas tax, and doing away with popular deductions like those for home mortgages. Meanwhile, most income tax rates would be lowered, through an overhaul of the tax code.

The initial reaction has been mostly negative, with both liberals and conservatives screaming objections. In the words of the AFL-CIO’s Rich Trumka: the plans authors “just told working Americans to ‘Drop Dead’… Especially in these tough economic times, it is unconscionable to be proposing cuts to the critical economic lifelines for working people, Social Security and Medicare.”

The conservative group, Americans for Tax Reform: “It confirms what everyone has known – this commission is merely an excuse to raise net taxes on the American people.” It warned that signing on to the plan would violate the anti-tax pledge many incoming Republican members of Congress, and some Democrats, have made.

The association representing the pharmaceutical industry said the recommendations on Medicare would undermine economic growth and job creation.

Among elected officials, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly labeled the plan “unacceptable” and Democrat and Senate Budget Committee member Richard Durbin of Illinois said he wouldn’t vote for it.

But there were a few receptive signs. Senate Budget Committee Chairman, Democrat Kent Conrad, said on ABC this morning, “there’s no way of doing it that’s not controversial or difficult.” But in a fatalistic bow to political realism, Conrad added: “If some of us have to sacrifice a political career to get this country back on track, then so be it.” He challenged the critics on his side of the aisle to come up with alternatives, rather than just shooting the plan down.

And outgoing Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, a budget expert in his party, called the proposal “a genuine product that deserves very serious attention.”

Perhaps most significant, and setting up a clear contrast with Pelosi, President Obama told reporters covering his meeting with global leaders in South Korea, “Before anybody starts shooting down proposals, I think we need to listen, we need to gather up all the facts. I think we have to be straight with the American people.”

Most members of Congress have yet to weigh in. And the historical odds against taking action, especially bold action like what Bowles and Simpson recommend, are long. But the grenade has been rolled into the middle of the room, underlining the message from many voters in last week’s midterm elections – that it’s time for Washington to get serious, and candid, about getting the nation’s fiscal house in order.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.

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