Obama leans toward centrists on new deficit-reduction panel


The White House is seeking to boost the credibility of a newly created fiscal commission with a roster of centrists who helped reduce deficits during the 1990s.

Alice Rivlin, President Bill Clinton’s budget director from 1994 to 1996, is being considered to join the commission tasked with coming up with a plan to tackle the country’s growing $12.3 trillion debt, according to an administration official. 

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Rivlin would join former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), whom Obama named as the panel’s co-chairmen last week.

All three had a hand in deficit reduction moves during the 1990s. Simpson voted for a 1990 agreement between President George H.W. Bush and Democrats that raised taxes to reduce the deficit and was opposed by most Senate Republicans. Rivlin and Bowles helped craft Clinton’s budget proposals and deals with GOP-led Congresses that led to four years of surpluses starting in 1998.

Obama’s effort to stock the panel with centrists appears aimed at paving the way for compromises between current Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

“It makes sense to have people who have come to ‘Yes,’ ” said Joe Minarik, another former Clinton White House budget aide. “That is an experience many of the appointees don’t have, either because they haven’t done it or because they’ve said no.” 

Obama is also “strongly considering” appointing to the panel Honeywell CEO and Chairman David Cote and Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the administration official said.

Cote helped make the case for Obama’s $787 billion stimulus to the business community last year. Cote, whom Obama named one of his four favorite CEOs earlier this month, has historically voted for Republicans but considers himself a moderate, said Honeywell spokesman Rob Ferris.

The SEIU’s Stern and other union leaders had joined liberal groups in opposing a version of the fiscal commission pushed by Senate centrists. The unions warned that the commission would propose cuts in entitlement benefits without the changes being considered fully by Congress.

Obama is asking his panel to come up with fiscal fixes, which could include tax hikes, spending cuts and entitlement reforms. Obama will ask Congress to consider the panel’s recommendations, and Democratic leaders in both chambers have said that those recommendations would be voted on.

The president gets to name six members to the 18-member panel, up to four of whom can come from the same party. Congressional leaders will choose the remaining 12 members. Republican and Democratic leadership in both chambers will get to choose three members each.

Obama will name additional members to the commission in the coming days, the official said. Congressional leaders have yet to announce when they will appoint their members. 

Former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said Simpson, Rivlin and Bowles, who worked with Domenici when he was chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, understand the importance of reducing the deficit, expected to hit a record $1.6 trillion this year and average more than $850 billion over the next decade. Helping budget experts who work off Capitol Hill should help lawmakers get closer to an agreement, Domenici said.

“We [citizens] have less hang-ups than they do,” he told The Hill. 

Domenici, who with Rivlin chairs an outside panel of experts that will recommend its own fiscal reform plan, said Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, would also be a good appointee for Obama’s commission because he understands the scope of the country’s fiscal problems.

Domenici said that the ultimate leadership will have to come from Obama.

“He has so far chosen to lead by, principally, saying, ‘Let’s have a commission,’ ” Domenici said. “That may work, but in the end this is so big that the president of the United States must be the leader.”