Bipartisan group urges presidential candidates to debate national debt

A bipartisan group of senators and political strategists are pressing for a national presidential debate on the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan. 

The new effort is aimed at highlighting the nation’s grim fiscal outlook and forcing President Obama and Mitt Romney to provide specific solutions to tackle the nation’s record debt. Neither Obama nor his GOP rival has embraced the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson commission. 

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In a letter released Wednesday morning, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) called on the Commission on Presidential Debates to address the national debt this fall. 

“Specifically, we request that you ask the presidential candidates which of the recommendations of the [Bowles-Simpson proposal] they would adopt as part of their plan to reduce the deficit. As part of this discussion, we believe that it would be essential to engage the candidates in a detailed discussion of their priorities for tax and entitlement reform,” the letter from the four senators states.

Three presidential debates have been scheduled:  Oct. 3 on domestic policy; Oct. 16 town hall on foreign and domestic policy; and Oct. 22 on foreign policy. The vice presidential debate will occur on Oct. 11. 

All four senators who signed the letter have demonstrated an interest in deficit-reduction deals during this Congress. Chambliss was a major player in the so-called Gang of Six, which unsuccessfully sought to craft a deal based on Bowles-Simpson. 

A bipartisan group of political heavyweights on Wednesday night echoed the senators’ concerns in a letter sent to the Frank Farenkopf and Mike McCurry, co-chairmen of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The signers included former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, ex-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), former White House special counsel Lanny Davis and former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). (Davis and Gregg are columnists for The Hill.)

The letter states that the $16 trillion national debt is “one of the great moral issues and threats facing our nation.” It implores the heads of the debate commission “to require the presidential candidates to offer specific, documented and comprehensive solutions.”

Davis told The Hill that the rare, bipartisan initiative demonstrates the need for candidates to “convince them that you can hold hands and jump in the pool together.”

Obama, who created the Bowles-Simpson commission, used aspects of the recommendations in failed negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on a deficit grand bargain in 2011. Romney’s plan, released last fall, does not raise net revenue and lowers taxes for the wealthy. It contains deeper cuts to spending, and generally targets entitlement programs.

But Davis, Steele and Rendell state in their letter that Obama and Romney must put forward specific plans, “scored by the Congressional Budget Office,” that will “reduce the national debt by at least $4 trillion over the next 10 years.” 

“You’ve got to be concrete … we’re asking Romney and Obama before they come to that debate to have their proposal as to what they’re going to do to reduce the debt by $4 trillion in 10 years, and if they’re not going to embrace all elements of Simpson-Bowles … then tell us how you are going to get to $4 trillion and get it scored,” Davis said.

Steele, Davis’s Republican partner at their political consultancy firm, Purple Nation Solutions, said that the candidates shouldn’t be allowed to deliver one-liners or talking points.

“We don’t want a debate of ad hominem attacks and B.S. one-liners,” Steele told The Hill. 

He added that he is perplexed as to why Obama did not endorse Bowles-Simpson.

“I particularly don’t get the whole Obama political strategy here,” Steele said. “If the president were to come out and embrace the work of his own commission, it would put the Romney campaign on its heels a bit, because you’ve got bipartisan support, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans who are behind a comprehensive, bottom-up approach.”

Both Steele and Davis are hoping that their respective parties will address the Bowles-Simpson plan at the party conventions later this summer. 

The Bowles-Simpson plan was released in December 2010 and offered trillions of dollars in deficit reduction through a combination of higher tax revenue through tax code simplification, deep cuts to defense and non-defense spending and reforms to Social Security. It did not tackle Medicare reform, the biggest driver of the long-term debt.

The plan has been lambasted by the right and left alike. Conservatives claim it would significantly raise taxes, while liberals contend it would make major cuts to social programs. 

Grover Norquist, the conservative activist who heads Americans for Tax Reform, has repeatedly noted that the proposal was not released in legislative text. The reason why it has attracted some bipartisan support, Norquist says, is because Republicans and Democrats are reading it differently.