December 2, 2010 / 9:32 PM / in 7 years

Deficit-cutting plan advances in uphill climb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two more lawmakers pledged on Thursday to support a plan to slash the U.S. budget deficit drawn up by the co-chairmen of a presidential commission, but the plan still faced long odds of moving to Congress.

<p>Senate staff members pick up copies of President Barack Obama's 2011 Budget as it is distributed on Capitol Hill in Washington February 1, 2010. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst</p>

With anxiety over government debt roiling markets in Europe and driving global capital into U.S. Treasury bonds, Republican Senators Tom Coburn and Mike Crapo said they will vote for the bold proposal at a decisive commission meeting on Friday.

But Republican Representative Paul Ryan said on Thursday he will vote against the plan, saying it does too little to tackle health care costs and relies too much on tax increases.

The announcements brought to nine the number of commission members backing the plan, with 14 votes needed to trigger congressional action on it. But analysts are betting that level of support will not materialize on the 18-member commission.

“It remains highly unlikely that any proposal will get the necessary 14 votes to become an official recommendation,” said Steve McMillin, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, a Washington policy advisory firm.

The co-chairmen of the commission -- Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson -- unveiled the plan on Wednesday. The commission was set up by President Barack Obama in February to find ways to balance the federal budget.

If the plan fails to win 14 votes, its progress through official channels ends, but its influence could go on.

“We think it will be a baseline for next year’s budget battles; we believe significant components could find their way into the president’s budget to be released in February as well as congressional budget proposals,” said Brian Gardner, policy analyst at investment firm Keefe Bruyette & Woods.

The Bowles-Simpson plan is coming at a time when the U.S. budget deficit is the highest it has been since World War Two. Polls show voters are deeply concerned, and they made that clear in the 2010 congressional elections, when Republicans scored enough victories to retake the House in 2011 and will hold more seats in the Senate.

At the same time, a government debt crisis is rolling through Europe -- from Greece to Ireland -- and raising concerns about the creditworthiness of larger nations.

‘NATIONAL SURVIVAL’ CITED

“Our debt crisis is a threat to not just our way of life, but our national survival ... This plan will not just avert a disaster but help drive the kind of economic recovery we need,” Coburn and Crapo said in a joint statement.

However, they said the plan does not go far enough in addressing rising health care costs. They argued that 80 percent of the debt problem comes from the government-run Medicare health program for the elderly.

All Americans should be ready to sacrifice to tackle the $1.3 trillion annual deficit and $13.8 trillion debt, they said.

The Bowles-Simpson plan proposes a major tax code overhaul and deep spending cuts to eventually balance the U.S. budget.

Democrats have slammed it for being too harsh on Medicare and Social Security. Republicans have objected to the tax hikes it recommends and said it does not go far enough on cutting health care.

Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, a commission member, said on Wednesday she would vote against the plan.

Other members have not declared their positions, but Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, who also sits on the commission, is likely to oppose it, as are some of the House Republican members.

Representative Jeb Hensarling, a rising star in the House Republican leadership and a panel member, said on Wednesday that any budget-balancing plan is better than none and he would like Bowles-Simpson to go before Congress.

But he added, “It may come to the floor without my vote.”

Meanwhile, commission member Andy Stern, a former labor union leader, unveiled his own deficit reduction plan on Thursday. It calls for spending cuts but seeks more immediate spending to help revive the economy and create jobs.

Stern told reporters on Wednesday he was undecided about whether to support the commission plan.

Editing by Philip Barbara

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