Long-term budget plan quietly forming

WASHINGTON — While the ugly public fight in Congress over how to keep the government funded for the next few months is getting all the attention, behind the scenes a bipartisan effort to craft a long-term path to fiscal stability is proceeding slowly and quietly.

The immediate struggle to make spending cuts for fiscal 2011, which runs through Sept. 30, is getting most of the publicity amid fears that a partisan stalemate may lead to a government shutdown. The government will run out of money March 18 unless a fiscal 2011 spending plan is adopted. Two Senate votes today are both expected to fail to resolve the issue, which will require high-level negotiations next week.

However, the short-term funding fight is simple compared to the real budget challenge, which is stark: The government borrows almost 40 cents of every dollar it spends. The White House projects a record $1.65 trillion deficit this fiscal year, and $7.2 trillion in deficits over the next 10 years.

President Obama's budget for fiscal 2012 would leave the government $26.35 trillion in debt after the next decade, up $12.8 trillion from last year. All the debt the nation ran up in history totaled only $5.6 trillion at the end of fiscal 2000.

The immediate fight over short-term government funding "doesn't deal with the real problem," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "Debt is the threat."

Unless major changes are made soon to federal tax and spending laws, "interest costs for everything will rise, and rise rapidly," said Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. That will make it harder to buy houses or cars, or to expand a business, or to reduce unemployment.

The chief hope for long-term debt reduction now rests with six senators, three from each party, who have been meeting privately once or twice a week. Leading the Senate effort are four commission members who backed its final report: Democrats Conrad and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho. Also involved are Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. They are liaisons to a broader group of about 25 senators who have signaled interest in joining a serious bipartisan plan.