WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama Saturday endorsed a bipartisan plan to name a special task force charged with coming up with a plan to curb the spiraling budget deficit, though the idea has lots of opposition from both his allies and rivals on Capitol Hill.
The bipartisan 18-member panel backed by Obama would study the issue for much of the year and, if 14 members agree, report a deficit reduction blueprint after the November elections that would be voted on before the new Congress convenes next year. The 14 would have to include at least half of the panel's Republicans – a big obstacle.
"These deficits did not happen overnight, and they won't be solved overnight," Obama said in a statement. "The only way to solve our long-term fiscal challenge is to solve it together – Democrats and Republicans."
The deficit spiked to an extraordinary $1.4 trillion last year and could top that figure this year as the struggling economy puts a big dent in tax revenues. Even worse from the perspective of economists and deficit hawks, the medium-term deficit picture is for deficits hitting around $1 trillion a year for the foreseeable future.
The White House has signaled that it will take an aggressive approach to the deficit this year; it's to be a major focus of Obama's State of the Union speech on Wednesday and his Feb. 1 budget submission.
The task force plan would have to pass the Senate on Tuesday, where a vote had already been scheduled. Moderate Democrats want to attach the deficit task force plan to legislation to permit the government to continue borrowing money to pay for its operations. The so-called debt limit measure would allow the government to issue another $1.9 trillion in bonds – enough to finance operations into next year.
The general belief is that the task force idea will fail since many Republicans oppose the plan as a recipe for tax increases, while Democrats worry it'll lead to cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits. And lots of powerful Democrats say the task force would encroach on their decision-making powers.
Still, some moderate Senate Democrats such as Evan Bayh of Indiana had demanded Obama's endorsement of the deficit panel idea, refusing to commit their votes for the unpopular debt limit measure next week without it.
The task force plan was offered by the top senators on the Budget Committee, Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who see it as the only way for Republicans and Democrats alike to take the leap into the treacherous business of curbing the deficit with politically unpopular tax increases and spending cuts.
Much of the opposition comes from top Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, whose toes would be stepped on since the findings of the task force automatically receive a vote in both the House and Senate, eroding their power.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who supported the task before anti-tax activist Grover Norquist came out against the idea, is now strongly opposed. House GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio appears opposed as well.
Even if the task force were to be named it's by no means clear it could agree on a plan, since it'll take the votes of Republicans to advance any plan to votes on Capitol Hill. Republican members could simply refuse to endorse tax increases, especially as the first act in the wake of midterm elections in which they hope for significant gains and perhaps even a takeover of the House.
"Everybody has an excuse for why they don't want to do what has to be done," Gregg countered in an interview. "In the end, are you going to govern or aren't you."
On Tuesday, the White House and top Capitol Hill Democrats reached a tentative accord that would have had Obama name a deficit commission using his presidential powers. But the idea was strongly opposed by Republicans such as Gregg and Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio – as well as some of Obama's Democratic allies – since a presidentially named commission couldn't force lawmakers to vote.
"Our statutory task force proposal provides the best chance for developing a truly bipartisan solution to this problem," said Conrad. "We cannot afford another commission whose product ends up on some shelf collecting dust."