Leading Senators call for fiscal commission

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The push to address the United States' long-term fiscal problems, and to remove the debate from the partisanship in Congress, took a step forward Wednesday.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and the committee's top Republican, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., introduced legislation that would create a bipartisan task force charged with making recommendations to Congress for reining in runaway spending growth that threatens to overwhelm the federal budget.

Noting that the country's debt as a percentage of gross domestic product is on track to double by 2019, and grow more than three times that size thereafter, Conrad told reporters, "there is not a serious observer who would conclude that that is a sustainable circumstance for the United States."

The commission's main goal would be to figure out what the country needs to do to get its budget back on a more balanced track.

Specifically, the commission would suggest ways to curb spending growth, especially in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and to boost tax revenue.

Conrad said the task force would have 18 members (16 from Congress, evenly divided between both parties) and two from the administration, including the Treasury secretary.

The commission's report would be due after the 2010 elections. And at least 14 of the 18 members must agree to the report's recommendations before submitting it to Congress.

Congress would then have to vote yes or no to the commission's suggestions without filibustering or amending them. And they would need to do so before Dec. 31, 2010. To pass, the recommendations would need to garner at least 60 votes in the Senate and a 60% majority of votes in the House.

Conrad said the bill so far has 27 co-sponsors in the Senate -- including 12 Democrats and 15 Republicans.

A similar bill, with 104 co-sponsors, was introduced in the House by Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., in March.

Supporters say the value of the commission is that it would protect the already difficult process of putting the country's fiscal house in order from the negative effects of partisanship in Congress -- regardless of which party is in power.

"We know policy gets destroyed at the starting line," Gregg said. "The minute you put up an idea it gets attacked by somebody from some side ... but in a way that poisons the well so that the idea cannot be moved forward in any constructive way."

Americans won't accept difficult changes "that they don't deem to be absolutely fair and bipartisan. We have to join hands and jump off the cliff together on these policy issues," he said.

Critics of such a commission call it "undemocratic."

"The American people are likely to view any kind of expedited procedure, where most members are sidelined to a single take-it-or-leave-it vote, as a hidden process aimed at eviscerating vital programs and productive investment," opponents of a deficit commission wrote to leaders of the House and Senate and to President Obama.

The letter was signed by 30 national organizations, including two union groups, the AFL-CIO and AFSCME, as well as Progressive Democrats of America, the National Organization for Women, the NAACP and Alliance for Retired Persons.

The debt ceiling conundrum

It's not clear when or whether the Conrad-Gregg proposal could come up for a vote. Conrad said he's been pressing the case with the Senate leadership and the administration.

But neither has made a commitment yet.

"Senator Reid agrees with Senator Conrad about the need to address our nation's long term fiscal challenges. The administration is considering alternative approaches for moving forward, and related discussions are ongoing," a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.

A group of lawmakers have threatened to withhold votes for a needed increase to the debt ceiling unless a proposal for a fiscal task force is included in the legislation.

The debt ceiling -- a legal limit on the amount of outstanding public debt that the United States is allowed to have -- is currently set at $12.104 trillion. As of Monday, the country's debt total was $12.086 trillion.

Conrad said that Treasury had informed him the debt ceiling is likely to be pierced by Dec. 31. There are measures Treasury can take to ward off breaching that ceiling if lawmakers don't vote for an increase in time, but those measures aren't likely to cover more than a few weeks.

If supporters of a bipartisan commission can't get their proposal attached to a debt-ceiling vote, then they may only agree to a very short-term increase to the ceiling, thereby creating another opportunity to include the proposal in a second debt-ceiling vote.

"[Introduction of the proposal] is being timed in a way to give a maximum chance to succeed at something that is an enormous and extraordinarily difficult undertaking," Conrad said. "If we think health care reform has been difficult, you haven't seen anything yet until you try to deal with the long-term debt circumstance threat facing this country."  To top of page

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