Debt Suggestions Might Not Fly in Lame Duck

Published Oct 1, 2010. By Paul M. Krawzak.

A co-chairman of President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission is warning that the environment after the Nov. 2 elections could be difficult for figuring out how to reduce the federal budget deficit and the national debt.

Obama set up the commission of presidential and congressional appointees earlier this year and gave it the task of formulating the kind of bipartisan fiscal plan that has been well out of the reach of lawmakers and presidents. Fourteen of the panel’s 18 members will have to agree in order to send any recommendation to Congress, where the Senate is committed to holding an up-or-down vote.

But at the commission’s meeting Wednesday — the final session before the elections — co-chairman Erskine Bowles said prospects for bipartisan agreements will “change dramatically however the election comes out.” He was not suggesting the task would be easier.

Bowles, who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, said it would be “relatively easy” for him and the other co-chairman, former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo. (1979-97), to endorse politically unpopular recommendations — such as benefit cuts or tax increases. But 12 of the panel’s members are members of Congress. While one of them is about to retire, the others will have to answer to voters if they want to continue their careers.

“We’ve got to count on those of you running for public office, too, and that means you’re going to have to set some of those parochial interests aside,” Bowles told his colleagues. “It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be painful.”

A Republican takeover of the House or Senate would likely embolden Republican members when the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility reconvenes in December, lawmakers and analysts concluded. The Republicans could conclude that they have increased leverage in shaping the panel’s recommendations.

“If Republicans win a big victory, there might be a tendency for Republicans to hold out for a package more conducive to their point of view,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition.

On the other hand, major gains in November could make Republicans on the commission less willing to cut bipartisan deals, some observers said. GOP leaders might discourage agreement, reasoning that any proposals to emerge from the commission would be considered during the post-election session of the 111th Congress with Democrats holding their current substantial House and Senate majorities.

Commission member Andy Stern worried that the White House and Democratic and Republican congressional leaders will try to sway members’ votes on recommendations.

“I think the elections will cause everybody to take a second look, and I’«m hopeful people outside the process in all parties and the White House don’t start to meddle,” said the former head of the Service Employees International Union. “They would be well served to let us finish the process and then make decisions based on our product, as opposed to trying to get too involved and influencing people before the outcome.”

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who is not on the commission and is retiring at the end of this year’s session, said he can see how it might be more difficult for the commission to reach agreement if Republicans win control in November. Party leaders who would rather deal with the deficit in the next Congress might pressure lawmakers on the commission to vote against any proposal, Bayh said.

Rep. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, said that if the GOP captures the House, any commission recommendation that includes raising taxes would face certain rejection. “I won’t vote to raise taxes, and I don’t think many Republicans will,” he said.