Updated at 12:04 p.m. on December 3.
Technically, it was a defeat. Yet President Obama’s deficit commission scored a symbolic victory this morning, with 11 of its 18 members agreeing to ratify a sweeping combination of tax-rate restructuring and social-safety-net cuts designed to tame America’s soaring national debt.
No formal vote was taken, but the 11 members who signaled support fell short of the supermajority needed to force a Senate vote on the plan - the next logical step for those ideas to translate from theory to policy.
President Obama, on a surprise trip to Afghanistan, issued a statement that thanked the commission for its work but did not endorse - or reject - its plan. He said he had invited the commission to meet with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew.
"The Commission’s majority report includes a number of specific proposals that I – along with my economic team -- will study closely in the coming weeks as we develop our budget and our priorities for the coming year," Obama said.
Later, he added: "We cannot afford to fall back on old ideologies, and we will all have to budge on long-held positions. So I ask members of both parties to maintain an open mind and a commitment to progress as we work to lift this burden from the shoulders of future generations.”
Several commission members, including some who opposed the plan, said they hoped Congress would debate and vote on the plan this year.
“There is no reason Harry Reid and John Boehner shouldn't schedule a vote" on the plan,” Andy Stern, the former head of the Service Employees International Union, who opposed the proposal on the commission, said in an interview. “The time for fiscal wandering is over."
Asked if he believed the plan would come to a congressional vote, Stern replied, “Well, I didn't think this would ever get 11 votes" on the commission.
Several commission members pleaded with Congress and the news media to give the proposal a fair hearing. “We should not let this proposal fall idly by the wayside,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. Democrat Alice Rivlin was more pointed: “Lay off and give it a chance,” she said.
The plan, developed by co-chairs Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a Republican, earned more support than almost anyone expected when President Obama established the panel early this year.
“We took a big banana and threw it into the gorilla cage,” Simpson said, “the gorilla has picked it up like they do, peeled it, mashed it, and played with it, and they will eat some. And that’s where we are right now. Pieces will be digested and nourish this country.”
The commission’s make-up includes some of the most hard-line liberal and conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill, along with representatives of the business community and organized labor. Their task was daunting: close a yawning budget gap that forecasters say could soon push the nation’s debt to a level that more than doubles America’s annual economic output.
And yet, at a time when Washington remains sharply divided and rancorous, particularly on issues of taxing and spending, the commission’s meeting Friday morning started collegially and quickly escalated to a cross-aisle love-fest. Several members called one another “true patriots.” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said at a Thursday press conference that the support of the plan from conservative Republican Sens. Crapo and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma gave him “chills.”
Even one of the “no” voters, Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., told Simpson and Bowles, “I suspect if you were doing the running of the bulls, the bulls would move out of your way.”
The prospect that such a polarized group could reach consensus looked particularly grim last month, when Bowles and Simpson floated a “chairmen’s mark” that was widely panned by liberal and conservative groups alike.
Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., derided its plan to eventually raise the Social Security retirement age to 69; anti-tax Republicans blasted its proposed 15-cent-per-gallon gas tax and a tax-reform plank that would increase federal revenues, even as it eliminated most tax deductions and broadly reduced tax rates across the board.
Nevertheless, the proposal gained steam behind the scenes. By the time Bowles and Simpson announced their final plan—named The Moment of Truth, which was largely unchanged from the chairmen’s original outline—this week, key commission members from both sides of the aisle greeted it warmly, including some who opposed it nonetheless.
For a plan that relies more heavily on entitlement cuts than new taxes, the most important endorsements came from Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, and Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., the outgoing chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Simpson singled out Durbin in his opening statement. “The role of a leader is to lead—and you did, Dick Durbin,” he said, before warning, “The tallest tree catches the most wind, and the breezes are going to blow around your head.”
Durbin said he expected three Democratic and three Republican lawmakers on the panel to back the plan, and that as many as 12 sitting Democratic senators had expressed their support for it.
He invoked a senator’s analogy—and his grandchildren—to explain his vote for the plan: “I wouldn’t vote for this report on final passage,” he said. “I view this as a motion to proceed and begin the debate.”
Durbin and Spratt both alluded to the pressures they felt to oppose the plan. “I received a few phone calls in the last 24 hours,” Durbin said, drawing laughter. Spratt, who lost his reelection bid in November, drew laughs of his own when he declared that upon reading the final plan, “I thought frequently, thank God I’m not running again.”