'Brutal' vote ahead on whether to raise the national debt ceiling

Many new Republicans were elected on a platform of shrinking the federal government. The first big test of their sincerity it coming, with a vote on whether to let the US borrow more money to increase the national debt. Deficit commission co-chair Alan Simpson says he 'can't wait.'

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of President Barack Obama's fiscal commission, were guests at Friday's Monitor Breakfast in Washington.

Saying he “can’t wait for the bloodbath in April,” the co-chairman of President Obama’s debt commission says that the “brutal” politics surrounding an upcoming vote on raising the national debt ceiling could force Congress to act on the commission’s controversial recommendations.

“This is going to be beautiful politics – the brutal kind,” said Alan Simpson, co-chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. He spoke at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters on Friday along with Erskine Bowles, the other co-chair.

The panel is slated to release its recommendations Dec. 1. Last week the co-chairmen released a preliminary report that provoked widespread opposition. It called for gradually raising the Social Security retirement age, making cuts in Medicare and defense spending, and raising tax revenue by closing loopholes and boosting the gasoline tax.

The key political problem surrounding deficit reduction is that voters favor the concept in general but oppose specific cuts that would affect their pocketbooks.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that nearly half the Republicans called the co-chair’s plan a “bad idea” while about one third of Democrats saw it that way.

“The debt limit, when it comes in April or May, will prove who is a hero and who is a jerk and who is a charlatan and who is a faker,” former Senator Simpson said. Roughly half of the new Republican members of the House of Representatives ran on a tea party-supported platform of cutting or curbing government spending.

“We’ve got guys who will not approve the debt limit extension unless we give them a piece of meat, real meat off this package” of deficit cutting plans, Simpson said. “They will say, 'I will not vote for the debt limit extension until you cut this.' ”

The federal debt ceiling is now $14.2 trillion, and the debt now stands at $13.7 trillion. Sometime this spring the government will run out of borrowing authority and will have to shut down, unless it votes to raise the ceiling.

The panel is struggling to reach a consensus on final recommendations. Fourteen of the panel’s 18 members must vote to support the recommendations for them to move forward.

Mr. Bowles, currently president of the University of North Carolina, expressed optimism that commission members could find some common ground. “You are going to be surprised when you talk to members of the commission ... to find out there is probably more middle ground than you think, still here in what is a very partisan town,” Bowles said. “There is common ground there. If this town decides it really wants to come together and solve this problem today, it is doable.”

As for the congressional battle over raising the debt ceiling, “I can’t wait,” Simpson said. “It will be something and I will be watching from our witness protection program.”

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