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Deficit Panel Chair: Debt is "Like a Cancer"

President Barack Obama stands with the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Erskine Bowles, second from right, and Alan Simpson, right, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010. AP

The leaders of President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission are delaying a vote by commission members on their comprehensive plan to reduce the deficit until Friday, they announced today.

In spite of the delay, they insisted America's moment of reckoning has arrived.

"America, you have a serious problem," deficit commission co-chair Alan Simpson said. "Time is short to address it."

Simpson and his fellow co-chair Erskine Bowles released their own draft proposal earlier this month that rankled both conservatives and liberals -- including other members of the commission.

Simpson told reporters that the commission will technically meet Mr. Obama's deadline for releasing their report by Dec. 1, even though the other commission members need more "time to absorb the changes." In order for the plan to have a serious chance to come up for a vote before Congress, 14 of the 18 commission members need to approve it.

The draft Simpson and Bowles released appeared unlikely to garner 14 votes: Republican panel member Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas said of the draft, "Some of it I like. Some of it disturbs me." Meanwhile, Democratic panel member Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) was compelled to release her own "liberal" plan for deficit reduction.

Bowles said today that he and Simpson have "met with and listened to every single member of this commission, and they have made this plan stronger." Still, he said it was unclear whether the plan would get 14 nods of support.

"There are enough reasons to vote 'no' in this plan for anybody to vote 'no,'" he said. "One thing is certain: The problem is real, the solutions are painful, and there are no easy choices."

Schakowsky, however, told liberals in Washington today that "the votes aren't there."

"I think [the co-chairs'] more modest goal is to try and get 10 members to say there is a majority," she said in an interview with the progressive group Campaign for America's Future. "I think they want to be able to say a majority of the president's commission supports the proposal."

Bowles said today that regardless of how the vote turns out, "We won, and we won big" because "the era of deficit denial in Washington is over." It is well understood among both lawmakers and the general public, he said, that "this deficit and debt is like a cancer and is going to destroy our country from within."

Bowles and Simpson said their plan included suggestions to eliminate certain targeted tax breaks, reduce the federal workforce by 200,000 people and alter Social Security, among other things.

Liberals have been particularly critical of the proposals to alter Social Security, which would lessen the payouts some Americans receive.

Schakowsky said today that her proposal has "very different assumptions... that we can actually reduce the deficit without hurting the middle class or lower income people."

Simpson passionately rejected those criticisms. "We're not balancing the books of America on the backs of poor Social Security recipients," he said. "That's babble."

Simpson dismissed the anticipated blow back from both the "far left" and the "far right."

"We will listen now in the next few days to the same old crap I've been dealing with all my public life: emotion, fear, guilt and racism," he said.

Proponents of preserving Social Security are already mobilizing strongly against the deficit commission's plan. Today, the liberal Strengthen Social Security Campaign held a national call-in day to flood Congress with calls from all 50 states to urge representatives to reject cuts to Social Security or plans to raise the retirement age.

Meanwhile, liberal groups have been busy fashioning alternative proposals. The "Citizens' Commission on Jobs, Deficits and America's Economic Future," for instance, released its own recommendations today, which include investments to spur job creation and long term economic recovery, establishing a "cap and trade" plan or carbon tax to raise revenue, and implementing a public option health plan. The Citizen's Commission is comprised of liberal economic policy experts, such as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Jeff Madrick and economists Dean Baker, Robert Pollin and Heidi Hartman, and former members of the House and Senate.

Another effort called "Our Fiscal Security" released a report that also suggests ideas like a cap and trade plan. This plan calls for delaying deficit reduction plans until after the unemployment rate has fallen significantly. The plan was a collaboration of the Century Foundation, Demos and the Economic Policy Institute.

Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for You can read more of her posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.
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