Obama panel fails to pass debt plan, but declares success anyway
President Obama’s debt commission Friday received support from 11 of 18 members, falling short of the 14 votes needed for what would have been more of a symbolic passage than anything else.
Commission members nonetheless declared their work over the last nine months a success, saying they believed their product — a 59-page report released Wednesday — provides a blueprint for the nation’s political leaders to begin getting America’s fiscal house in order.
Obama himself said that the commission “met the charge that I gave them: to bring our deficits down in the medium term and to meaningfully improve our long-run fiscal situation so that we can keep commitments made to future generations.”
He said that he will “study closely” many of the commission’s proposals as he and his administration develop their proposal for next year’s budget.
“Jobs and growth are our most urgent need,” Obama said in a statement sent to the press less than an hour after the White House announced the president had arrived in Afghanistan for a surprise trip to visit U.S. troops.
“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.”
The commission lauded the plan’s bipartisan support. Three yes votes came from Democratic lawmakers and three came from Republican lawmakers. The other five members in support were similarly mixed, with three Democrats and two Republicans.
The group of seven commission members who voted against the plan was equally diverse, but represented the more ideological and hard line members of both the left and the right. Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union; Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Illinois Democrat, and Rep. Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat and member of the House Democratic leadership, joined with conservative Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican; Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, and Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and member of the House GOP leadership, against the plan.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, was the most senior legislative figure to vote against the proposal.
Perhaps the most surprising votes in support from conservatives came from Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. Mike Crapo, Idaho Republican. The most liberal lawmaker who may have been expected to oppose it but who voted in favor was Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat.
“Fourteen is just a number, but I think you have done more than reach a number. You have inspired us to do what we need to do,” said Durbin, who voted for the plan, though he said he strongly disagreed with many parts of it.
Durbin said he had already received a number of incredulous phone calls from other liberals since announcing Thursday night that he would support the plan. But he said that about a dozen Democratic senators had said they supported the proposal, and predicted others would.
(Click here for details on the plan, here to read the full plan, here to read details on other proposals from commission members, and here to read why the most conservative members of the commission don’t like the final plan.)
In fact, a group of 13 Democratic senators and one Independent — not including Durbin — sent a letter to Obama and congressional leaders Friday saying “prompt action is needed to bring the country’s deficit into balance and stabilize our debt over the long term.”
“The situations in Ireland and Greece demonstrate that rising debt levels, left unchecked, can quickly and unpredictably force a country to take drastic austerity measures,” the letter said. “If we don’t choose to act now, we will be forced to act later with fewer and more painful options available to us.”
The 13 Democratic senators were: Mark Warner of Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Tom Carper of Delaware, Dianne Feinstein of California, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Udall of Colorado.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was the one Independent to sign the letter.
Only 11 of the 18 members showed up for the commission’s last meeting. Even if the plan had received 14 votes Congress would not have been bound to take it up as legislation.
Commission members said that they have increased pressure on Congress to act to reduce the federal government’s deficits and debt. Co-chairman Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, has said that if Congress does not begin taking action early next year to formulate its own plan, they will be forced to when the government’s debt nears its $14.3 trillion limit in the spring.
Congress will then have to vote to raise the debt limit, and Simpson has predicted that many lawmakers will demand drastic spending cuts, and they will be able to look to the debt commission plan for ideas.
Stern said that Obama should release his own plan in the next two months.
“This president needs to make sure that by the state of the union he has his own plan,” Stern said.
Bruce Reed, the commission’s executive director, said he was sure that Obama would incorporate elements of the plan into his budget proposal to be released early next year.
“I am confident they will,” Reed told the Daily Caller. “I don’t know how much or what parts.”
And in fact, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Jack Lew, the president’s budget director, on Friday morning called Co-chairman Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, to tell him they want to meet with the full commission next week.
Focus will now turn in some part to the incoming House Republican leadership, to see how much they plan to propose their own solutions to reform the tax code and entitlements, as well as health care.
One of the central points of origin for these ideas is expected to be the House Budget Committee, which Ryan will chair. Bowles said Ryan has told him that around 75 percent of the ideas in the debt plan will be incorporated in his budget proposal.
There will also be pressure on incoming House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican, and incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, to either stand behind some of Ryan’s most controversial ideas or to propose some of his own.
Cantor signaled that he and the House GOP were ready to do so, and to take on the difficult and politically treacherous job of reforming the biggest contributor to the nation’s $88 trillion in unfunded liabilities: entitlement systems such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“The new Republican Majority must immediately start a conversation with the nation about the kind of entitlement changes that are necessary for us to keep the promises made to seniors while meeting the obligations made to young workers and our children,” Cantor said in a statement commending the commission on its work.
Cantor said he has supported Ryan’s efforts in the past to “to begin a conversation – despite the deluge of false attacks and scare tactics deployed by Members of Congress, the Administration, and their liberal allies.”
“I hope that in light of the Commission’s plan, those type of attacks will become a thing of the past,” Cantor said.
E-mail Jon Ward and follow him on Twitter