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Fiscal Commission Chairs Fight For Relevancy Amid Tax-Cut Hysteria

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WASHINGTON -- In less than a month, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the co-chairmen of President Obama's fiscal commission, have gone from being the darlings of the Beltway media to being the most irrelevant men in Washington.

These high priests of deficit hawkery captivated the headlines in November with their ostensibly bipartisan proposals for massive cuts in government spending combined with modest increases in taxes -- and won news cycle after news cycle with their doomsday rhetoric about what would happen if they weren't heeded.

Then, on Monday, President Obama announced a deal with Republican Senate leaders that's full of massive tax cuts and modest increases in spending. It would require about $700 billion more borrowing, not less, and includes an $120 billion gift for the country's millionaires and billionaires.

Apparently when it comes to actually doing things, rather than just talking about them, the only policies that are really bipartisan in today's Washington are ones that add to the deficit, not reduce it. Republicans, after all, care about tax cuts for the rich more than about anything else. And Democrats are desperate to restart the economy and help its victims.

For some progressives, the fact that tax-cut hysteria has supplanted deficit-obsessed austerity as the flavor of the month is one of its top selling points.

For their part, Simpson and Bowles on Wednesday were trying to reassert their relevancy. They were doing so, appropriately enough, about 1500 miles away from Washington. In Wyoming.

Speaking from the Bighorn Room at Cheyenne's Little America Conference Center, Simpson and Bowles insisted that America is still in the thrall of deficit fever.

"There's no question that people understand that this debt is like a cancer, it's going to destroy our country from within," Bowles said at a news conference that Washington reporters were allowed to listen in on, but not interrupt with questions.

Simpson even bragged about all the attention they got last month. Expecting a small initial press conference, he said, "we go in there, there's 14 cameras, there's 55 journalists, there's 150 people," he said. And why? Because "this little stink bomb has been rolled into the body politic and it ain't going away."

But the commission's deficit stink bomb has been snuffed out, whisked off and overpowered by another scent entirely.

Bowles acknowledged that something indeed had taken place, but only briefly. "I am deeply disappointed that we have this short-term deal," he said, before quickly expressing his determination that "it must be absolutely linked to long-term fiscal restraint."

How does he see that happening? Well the commission is meeting Thursday at the White House with some of Obama's top budget people, and, unless it's been canceled, Bowles will have a message for them.

"We're going to talk about linking whatever short-term deal they make with long-term fiscal restraint," he said. "I'd like to see a commitment by all sides, before they agree to these tax cuts, that they're going to address the long term fiscal problems."

Simpson, whose lust for a good old-fashioned partisan bloodletting has never been less in doubt, was a little more realistic.

Sometime in early 2011, the nation's debt limit, now $14.3 trillion, will likely be reached. Without a congressional vote to increase it, the government would no longer be able to borrow money, forcing it into default. A commitment to vote for increasing the debt limit was conspicuously absent from the Obama tax-cut deal, giving right-wing Republicans a huge opening to take hostages again, in a matter of months.

Simpson relishes the prospect, saying the reckoning for this month's tax cuts will come then, when conservatives demand to know "what are you going to take away if you give this big chunk." And let there be no doubt, Simpson said. "It's a chunk."

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Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.

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