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Deficit panel pushes Demos, GOP

Published: Friday, Nov. 12 2010 1:20 a.m. MST

Erskine Bowles, left, accompanied by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of President Barack Obama's bipartisan deficit commission, take part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010. (Associated Press) Erskine Bowles, left, accompanied by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of President Barack Obama's bipartisan deficit commission, take part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — The leaders of the deficit commission are baldly calling out the budget myths of both political parties, challenging lawmakers to engage in the "adult conversation" they say they want.

Their plan — mixing painful cuts to Social Security and Medicare with big tax increases — has no chance of enactment as written, certainly not as a whole. But the commission's high profile will make it harder for Republicans and Democrats to simply keep reciting their tax and spending talking points without acknowledging the real sacrifices that progress against government deficits would demand.

It's time for both conservatives and liberals to "put up or shut up," says Jon Cowan, head of the centrist-Democratic group Third Way, which praised the bold new proposals and urged politicians to show courage. Republicans failed to produce their often-promised deficit reductions when they controlled the government, Cowan said, and Democrats refuse to acknowledge that entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare must be trimmed.

Erskine Bowles, left, accompanied by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of President Barack Obama's bipartisan deficit commission, gestures while speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010. (Associated Press) Erskine Bowles, left, accompanied by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of President Barack Obama's bipartisan deficit commission, gestures while speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010. (Associated Press)

Already, some top elected officials — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for one — have declared Wednesday's proposals by President Barack Obama's bipartisan commission unacceptable. Others still say deficits can be reduced in relatively easy ways, a notion that few mainstream economists accept.

There's no need to trim Social Security, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a tea party favorite, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press." "If we can just cut the administrative waste," he said, "we can cut hundreds of billions of dollars a year at the federal level."

Well, no.

As amply demonstrated by the panel's co-chairmen — former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and retired Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. — taming the deficit requires real pain all around. One person's government "waste" is another's essential program.

The co-chairmen's ideas, which they agree are simply a starting point, include calls to raise the Social Security retirement age and reduce scheduled benefit increases, whack the Pentagon budget, cut farm subsidies and increase the federal tax on gasoline by 15 cents a gallon.

The most vocal critics of the plan, which would cut spending by $3 for every $1 raised through higher taxes, are Democrats. Many will strongly oppose the bid to slowly raise the Social Security retirement age to 69. Republicans, especially three commission members appointed by incoming House Speaker John Boehner, are likely to balk at tax increases

Opinion is split on whether 14 of the panel's 18 members will ultimately agree on a plan. That's the number needed to demonstrate bipartisan support and send the measure to the Senate and, maybe, the House for a vote. Either way, commission members are unlikely to produce actual legislation that could become law. But they could bless a set of recommendations that would put lawmakers on record for or against a serious deficit-reduction recipe.

The panel was created out of both parties' frustration with the government's chronic inability to control budget deficits and the national debt. The idea is that Republicans and Democrats might join hands and vote for an unpopular mix of tax increases and program reductions because the shame and hypocrisy of doing nothing would be too great.

Ultimately it's the public that often drives decisions by lawmakers and a president, all craving re-election.

That doesn't necessarily help.

"The voters are the most culpable group of all," says former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. They embrace the idea that "we don't need new revenues, and all these programs are sacrosanct," he said in an interview.

"Nobody wants to make hard decisions," Davis said.

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