Eleven out of 18 members of the president’s debt commission signaled their support for its recommendations Friday. That’s three short of the 14 needed to require a vote on the plan in Congress, but still more than expected – a 60 percent bipartisan majority.
And that, commission members said Friday, shows that the plan is an important first step in addressing the nation’s unsustainable fiscal path.
“It’s now up to the members of Congress and the members of the administration ... to work together,” said the commission's Democratic co-chair, Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton White House chief of staff.
An unannounced trip Friday to Afghanistan by President Obama, plus a worse than expected jobs report, diverted attention from the fiscal commission’s final day. But in a statement, the president praised the commission’s effort and said that he and his economic team would “study closely” a number of specific proposals as they plan and budget for the coming year. He was not specific about which proposals he meant.
“Jobs and growth are our most urgent need,” Mr. Obama’s statement said. “But if we want an America that can compete for the jobs of tomorrow, we simply cannot allow our nation to be dragged down by our debt. We must correct our fiscal course."
Many reservations about plan
No member of the commission agreed with every aspect of the report, which laid out spending cuts and tax increases that would reduce deficits by nearly $4 trillion by 2020. And with most members, there seemed to be little difference between those voting yes and no, in terms of the number of reservations raised about various provisions. But perhaps most significantly, commissioners who are also members of Congress – including those who said they were voting no – have pledged to incorporate many of the proposals in legislation.
The question is whether such efforts will amount to anything more than Republicans proposing cuts in entitlements and discretionary nondefense spending and Democrats proposing tax increases and cuts in defense spending. The latest employment report, which showed barely any job creation and an increase in the unemployment rate to 9.8 percent, could hamper efforts to step back and deal with the longer-term debt and deficit emergency.
Among the commission members voting "yes," perhaps the most surprising were liberal Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, and Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Michael Crapo of Idaho, two of the Senate’s more conservative Republicans.
In a Chicago Tribune column posted online late Thursday, Senator Durbin announced his "yes" vote as a gesture toward the gravity of the nation’s fiscal situation, despite his disagreement with many of the commission report’s proposals.
“First, all politicians, left or right, Democrat or Republican, have to acknowledge the deficit crisis our nation faces,” Durbin wrote. “Borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar we spend for missiles or food stamps is unsustainable. And being indebted for generations to China and OPEC does not make America a stronger nation.”
Time is of the essence
Senators Coburn and Crapo also stressed the urgency of addressing the nation’s spiraling debt in a joint statement Thursday.
"We can't afford to wait until the next election to begin this process," Coburn and Crapo said. "Our debt crisis is a threat to not just our way of life, but our national survival.”
Also voting “yes” on the commission report were the two co-chairs, Mr. Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, Rep. John Spratt (D) of South Carolina, who lost his reelection bid last month, former business executive Ann Fudge, Honeywell International CEO Dave Cote, and former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin.
The seven members voting “no” included all three Republican House members, Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, and David Camp of Michigan, creating a stark contrast with the commission’s Senate Republicans, who all supported the report. The divide may reflect the nature of the two chambers: House members face election every two years, senators every six. Senator Gregg is retiring at the end of the year, and the other two Republicans are not up for reelection in 2012. In addition, Republicans will have the majority in the House come January, but not in the Senate.
The other “no” votes came from Rep. Xavier Becerra (D) of California, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) of Illinois, Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, and former service employees labor union president Andy Stern.
But regardless of the members' positions on the report, the final meeting was a love fest of mutual and bipartisan praise, a rare sight in Washington. Mr. Cote of Honeywell, a Republican, described the apprehension he felt at first in particular over serving with Mr. Stern, whom he called “a turbulent labor leader.” Now the two are friends.
“I fully expected that two months into this I’d be hearing ‘hey, hey, ho, ho’ outside my office window,” Cote said. “That never happened.”