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US Debt Panel Plan Fails to Pass, But Wins Bipartisan Support

Debt Commission member, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad (l) and co-chairmen Erskine Bowles, before a meeting of the commission on Capitol Hill in Washington, 01 Dec 2010
Debt Commission member, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad (l) and co-chairmen Erskine Bowles, before a meeting of the commission on Capitol Hill in Washington, 01 Dec 2010
Cindy Saine

A report by a presidential panel commissioned to find ways to pull the United States out its massive debt has failed to win the 14 out of 18 votes required to bring it up for a vote in Congress. But Democratic and Republican members of the panel praised the sweeping plan, which recommends raising the retirement age and cuts in defense spending, saying it has raised awareness that Congress has to take action to reduce the national debt.

President Barack Obama called together a bipartisan panel of 18 current and former U.S. lawmakers and top business and labor union leaders to hammer out a plan to drastically cut the spiraling U.S. national deficit. The panel's recommendations prompted a firestorm of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.

Some Democrats objected to proposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare, and plans to raise the retirement age. Some Republicans said they oppose the plan because it does not do enough to cut spending and health care costs.

But despite all the misgivings, 11 members of the panel voted for the plan, including progressive Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Durbin said he had been getting a lot of phone calls asking why he voted yes, and this was his explanation.

"I believe that politicians on the left and the right, Democrats and Republicans, have to acknowledge the depths of crisis our nation faces," said Durbin. "When we borrow 40 cents out of every dollar we spend, whether it is in the Pentagon or for food stamps, that is unsustainable. And being indebted for generations to China, OPEC and other nations around the world will not allow us to build a fairer and just America."

Republican Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho also voted for the plan, and said he believes it has already changed the national debate on the country's deficit.

"The fact that we did not hit 14 should not be, and many others have reflected this same sentiment, should not be an indication that there is not powerful support behind this plan, and the need for Congress to engage," said Crapo.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the panel said the commission's plan deserves a vote on the floor of the House and the Senate. The plan would reduce deficit spending by nearly $4 trillion by 2020.

But Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois said the plan would put an unfair burden on lower income Americans and the elderly, while leaving the wealthiest virtually unscathed.

"But there is another grave threat to both our economy and our democracy, and that is the alarming redistribution of wealth that is shrinking the middle class," said Schalowsky. "The top one percent of Americans now own 34 percent of our nation's wealth, more than the entire 90 percent of the rest of Americans combined."

The next Congress will likely take up the national debt issue next year. But first, in its remaining weeks in December, this session of Congress still needs to fund the federal government and to deal with the controversial issue of extending Bush-era tax cuts.

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