Updated at 8:54 a.m. on November 11.
The chairmen of President Obama’s fiscal commission surprised both observers and some panel members Wednesday by publicly releasing a sweeping set of proposed measures ahead of schedule. Former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo, and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles made a snap decision to hand over the politically white-hot proposal to the media, even as some members were insisting that the commission would not release any information until December 1.
The decision to release the plan came in response to reporters pressing members and staff for details. Committee aides said former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin, a commission member, suggested the release in an effort to control media coverage, fearing that the report would otherwise be leaked piecemeal and face negative publicity. Simpson and Bowles agreed.
But one key member, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, said he was taken by surprise Wednesday.
“I was anticipating more of a menu of scoring options,” said the North Dakota Democrat.
Sounding less than thrilled, he said Wednesday afternoon that he had gotten the plan that morning and had just huddled with staff to review it. "This is not exactly what I had in mind," he said.
Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., also was not ready to discuss details of the proposal Wednesday, though he said he could not support it.
By quickly releasing the proposal, Simpson said he and Bowles hoped to use the shock value of controversial proposals to highlight the importance of deficit reduction. They also said they want to dictate the terms of the public debate. For example, Bowles said proposals to change parts of the plan should come with pay-fors, keeping the chairmen’s marker at the helm of the debate.
In taking that approach, the chairmen picked a public splash rather than following the process established for enactment of the proposals: If 14 of the 18 members agreed to a proposal, the Senate would take it up, and if it passed the Senate, it would then be sent to the House.
If Bowles and Simpson were trying to line up 14 votes, they likely would have worked privately to build support for their proposals.
But Conrad and other commission members downplayed the chances of getting 14 votes for any plan. And Simpson said he sees no chance of getting a vote or legislative language this year on the plan.
It was “time to get it out and let the American people start to chew on it,” Simpson said. “The key is that it’s out there; it’s gonna be out there for a long time, and [lawmakers] have to respond.”
But the surprising release also prompted some quick criticism from Democrats, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called the proposal "simply unacceptable." That prompted President Obama to ask for patience and thoughtful deliberation today.
“Before anybody starts shooting down proposals, I think we need to listen, we need to gather up all the facts,” he said during a press conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. “If people are, in fact, concerned about spending, debt, deficits, and the future of our country, then they’re going to need to be armed with the information about the kinds of choices that are going to be involved, and we can’t just engage in political rhetoric.”
Humberto Sanchez contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the November 11, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.