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Senate nixes debt commission

By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Senate on Tuesday rejected a proposal to create a bipartisan commission charged with reining in the country's debt.

The goal was to create a framework to force Congress to make some tough choices -- specifically tax increases and spending cuts.

Had it passed, Congress would have been required to take speedy votes on the commission's recommendations. The recommendations would have gone up for a vote by the end of this year.

The proposal fell by a vote of 53 to 46. Sixty votes were required for passage. The measure was attached as an amendment to a bill that would increase the legal limit U.S. debt by $1.9 trillion.

"While the statutory fiscal task force proposal ... did not secure the necessary 60 votes for adoption, I am heartened by the 53 votes we did receive," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who co-sponsored the amendment with Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the committee's top-ranking Republican.

The bill had garnered bipartisan support as well as the backing of President Obama.

But it drew criticism from some influential conservative and liberal groups, as well as a number of top lawmakers such as Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Conservatives didn't like it because they were sure the commission would lean too heavily on tax increases to help close the looming fiscal shortfalls. Liberals were equally convinced the commission would lean too heavily on draconian spending cuts, particularly in Medicare and Social Security.

Some lawmakers didn't like it because they saw the commission as usurping their authority and the obligations of Congress.

Despite the Senate vote, the idea of a commission isn't necessarily dead. It is expected that Obama will create a bipartisan fiscal commission by executive order.

"That is certainly one of the things that is being talked about," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.

But a presidential panel would be a weak substitute, because it would not have the force of law. Members of Congress would have no obligation to even read the recommendations let alone vote on them, although Conrad is seeking assurances from House and Senate leaders that the recommendations will be voted on. Some Republicans have already signaled they would consider such a commission toothless and partisan.

It's not clear when the Senate will vote on the debt limit increase itself. Nor is it clear if such an increase will be voted through.

Republicans are likely to vote against raising the ceiling. The votes of more than a dozen Democrats are in question, too. They had said they don't want to vote for a large debt-ceiling increase unless there is a clear signal that there will be a plan to address long-term shortfalls in the federal budget.

It is possible, however, that supporters will now reconsider a presidential fiscal commission created by Obama as the next best option.

The Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday reminded lawmakers once again of how dire the fiscal outlook is. The looming shortfalls are due in large measure to unsustainable growth in entitlement programs such as Medicare, as well as in interest due on the nation's debt. To top of page

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