Obama Endorses Bipartisan Debt Commission Opposed By Progressives

January 25, 2010 6:51 a.m.

The Senate is expected to vote tomorrow on a proposal to create a bipartisan debt commission charged with reducing soaring budget deficits, which are projected to be around $1 trillion a year for the next decade.

The commission would potentially have the power to force Congress into an up-or-down vote on systematic changes to the tax code and government entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security. That’s got a lot of progressives worried — and mad.On Saturday, President Obama came out with explicit support for the proposal, sponsored by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), just as Republicans were pulling back from their early support. Meanwhile, progressive groups and other supporters of entitlement programs, like the AARP, are protesting the proposal, saying that such a commission would limit congressional debate, and shield lawmakers from the political fallout of altering popular social services.

In a statement, Obama said he “strongly” supports the legislation and called on “senators from both parties to vote for the creation of a statutory, bipartisan fiscal commission.” According to CNN, the proposed commission would include 8 Republicans and 10 Democrats (two appointed by Obama), and would take several months to study the budget problem. After the midterm election, the commission would vote on a reform package, and if it received 14 votes, the measure would go to Congress for an automatic up-or-down vote.

The proposal is not expected to pass Tuesday. While 20 Republicans co-sponsored the bill when it was first introduced, their support has eroded. On Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared on Meet the Press and expressed his opposition to the measure.

If the measure fails in the Senate, the President could go back to a previous agreement he had struck with lawmakers, that would create a commission by executive order, with the same purview as the Conrad-Gregg commission, but without the ability to force an up-or-down vote from Congress.

Labor leaders and 56 other progressives groups put out a letter saying that if “the Conrad-Gregg proposal were to become law, it could dramatically change by stealth critical benefits and services so vital to America’s families” and that the commission “will be viewed as a way to actually cut Medicare benefits, while insulating lawmakers from political fallout.” Signatories include the AFL-CIO, NAACP, MoveOn.org, National Council of Women’s Organizations, and the SEIU.

The AARP also released a statement against the commission. AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond wrote that the “AARP is disappointed by the Obama Administration’s support for a provision that would likely result in significant reductions to the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs – affecting millions of Americans – without the benefit of full and open debate by accountable Members of Congress” adding that the organization is strongly opposed to a proposal that treats “Social Security and Medicare as piggy banks for debt reduction.”

The New York Times is reporting that the Bipartisan Policy Center, a group founded by four former Senate Majority Leaders, will form their own task force to take on the budget deficit problem. The group will be led by Pete V. Domenici, a Republican former senator from New Mexico and former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Alice Rivlin, a Democrat and formerly a budget director for Congress, former President Bill Clinton, and former vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve.

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