Consensus on deficit eludes bipartisan panel

President Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission met Tuesday amid growing uncertainty over whether a consensus proposal to reduce the nation's deficits could be reached before a Dec. 1 deadline.

The meeting was the first of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform since the panel's co-chairmen, Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, issued a draft proposal last week.

That plan suggested major cuts in domestic and military spending, an overhaul of the tax code to boost revenue and changes to entitlement programs, including a delay of full Social Security benefits until age 68. They proposed limiting or ending the mortgage tax deduction to increase revenue, offsetting that effective tax increase by reducing the overall tax rate.

Details of the proposals were greeted with skepticism, especially from liberals who objected to deep cuts in aid programs.

After Tuesday's meeting, Bowles acknowledged the "time squeeze," but said there was still a chance the commission could reach a decision on recommendations.

"There are ways to get there still. It's going to be really tough. Time is not our friend in this effort," he said. "But I think we have a chance still, and we're working at it."

As evidence of the rift among the 18 members of the commission, several came into Tuesday's meeting armed with their own alternatives.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, proposed ways to reduce the annual federal deficit by $428 billion by 2015, while protecting lower- and middle-class wage earners who she said would continue to suffer under the Bowles-Simpson plan.

"I wanted to express my philosophy of debt and deficit reduction — that this was not just a bean-counting exercise, that it had to be fairer," Schakowsky said in an interview before the meeting.

She also said it wasn't clear that members would be able "to get any kind of comprehensive agreement" by Dec. 1.

"I feel very confident in saying that if that [Bowles-Simpson] proposal were put up for a vote, it would not even get one in the current commission," she said.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) described Tuesday's meeting as productive but said, "We've got a long way to go to reach a conclusion." Asked if a Dec. 1 deadline was feasible, he said, "I wish we had more time."

Obama set the Dec. 1 deadline when he created the commission by executive order.

Bowles praised Schakowsky for offering an alternative. "We welcome any good ideas as to how to go forward," he said. "What's clear to me is that the era of debt denial is over."

Fred Baldassaro, a spokesman for the commission, said members would continue to discuss proposals in the coming two weeks, before holding open sessions on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

Under the commission's bylaws, members must vote on a final report containing a set of recommendations. Fourteen of 18 members must support the plan to move it to the president's desk.

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