A congressman who has been a perennial budget workhorse and a senator who has spent his career focused on other issues will be marquee players in what should be one of 1989's most clamorous political clashes: how to cut the federal deficit.
Rep. Leon Panetta, D-Calif., and Sen. James Sasser, D-Tenn., each are becoming chairmen of their chamber's budget committees in time to wrestle with $35 billion in needed deficit cuts. And incoming president George Bush has pledged to achieve the cuts without new taxes.Both lawmakers are in general agreement that mopping up the red ink with spending cuts alone is a dubious approach. In interviews, Sasser said making up the shortfall without new taxes makes it "less likely that you'll have success," while Panetta said what are needed are spending cuts and "You have to raise revenues."
The two men are also lawyers, but similarities between them don't go much further.
Panetta, 50, is from Monterey, Calif., and began his political life as a liberal Republican. He left the GOP after losing his job as director of the Civil Rights Office in President Nixon's Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1970 after complaining about the agency's lack of aggressiveness.
He gravitated to the Democratic Party but still keeps an autographed picture in his office of the late Earl Warren, the GOP California governor who became the liberal chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sasser, 50, was chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party from 1973 to 1976, a tenure that ended with his defeat of incumbent GOP Sen. William E. Brock. The Memphis native, who has been re-elected easily twice since then, is a moderate liberal who has prospered in a conservative state by tending to its needs on the Appropriations Committee and by taking populist positions against government waste and high interest rates.
Panetta has worked on budget matters since coming to Congress in 1977. In 1981, he was chosen by House Democratic leaders to help find $37 billion in spending cuts that newly elected President Reagan had rammed through Congress. The job pitted the green lawmaker against House committee chairmen schooled in protecting their turf, and Panetta to this day calls that period his toughest budget battle ever.
He also helped shape the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law.