DURHAM — More than a year after their deficit reduction plan dead-ended in Congress, the leaders of President Barack Obama's debt panel don't see much hope for movement in this election year.
But at a Duke University event Wednesday, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the commission co-chairmen, said they remain committed to the bipartisan plan, working with federal lawmakers to put their ideas into legislation for introduction as early as next month.
"I believe that the chance of something happening this year, in a political year, is slim," said Erskine Bowles, the former UNC system president and chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. "It's a tough slog, but I'm encouraged because nothing big ever happens quickly in Washington."
Simpson, a former top Republican in the U.S. Senate, said the reason the debt commission's plan to trim $4 trillion from the deficit failed is simple: partisanship and political gridlock. It's why Obama didn't embrace the commission's recommendation and the GOP candidates for the White House rejected it outright.
"If the president adopted this program, he would have been torn to ribbons by his base," Simpson said.
Bowles and Simpson spoke hours after Congress returned to Washington and revived the debt debate that consumed the political discourse last year. Obama asked Congress last week to increase the $15.2 trillion debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion, a procedural move required by the debt compromise passed by lawmakers last summer.
In a vote Wednesday, the Republican-controlled U.S. House approved a one-page resolution disapproving of the president's request. But it is a protest with no real effect, as passage in the Democratic-led Senate is unlikely, and a presidential veto is insurmountable.
The vote generated little interest and political potency. With last year's agreement to increase the borrowing cap by $2.1 trillion - balanced with equal spending cuts in the next decade - the next federal debt crisis won't emerge until January 2013, after the election.
Bowles and Simpson want to keep the pressure on Congress as they tour the country giving paid speeches about their deficit plan. The duo - while providing moments of humor - don't mince words when it comes to the consequences if lawmakers fail to act.
"It's clear. The arithmetic is easy. The fiscal path we are on is not sustainable," Bowles said.
Democrats' idea to raise revenue with tax increases won't solve the problem, Bowles and Simpson said. Neither will Republicans' suggestion to cut spending. Because neither man is seeking public office, it allowed them to skewer political sacred cows, whether Social Security or the military.
The frank talk impressed the approximately 1,200 people in the crowd. But one questioner at the end, clearly feeling the weight of the discussion, wondered whether either Bowles or Simpson saw any reason for optimism on the horizon.
"I think the future of this country is very, very bright if we face up to our problems," Bowles told him.
"If not," Simpson interjected, "we'll be a great country, but we won't be No. 1."
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