Hoyer: Looming debate over debt more crucial than fight to pass healthcare bill

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the epic healthcare fight Congress just finished doesn't matter as much as the coming debate over the growing $12.8 trillion federal debt.

The second-ranking House Democrat said "the single most pressing challenge" for the public and lawmakers was "putting our fiscal house in order."

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"The subject we were discussing [healthcare] was not as important as the subject we're discussing here," said Hoyer at a University of Maryland forum Thursday on the country's fiscal future.

Hoyer has taken the lead among House Democrats in pushing them to respond to growing entitlement costs, a major reason for projected unsustainable annual deficits of nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. Hoyer has pushed leaders in both chambers to commit to votes on fiscal reform proposals coming out of President Barack Obama's bipartisan debt commission, which is likely to consider changes to the tax code, spending and entitlement programs. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will allow votes on the panel's proposals sometime in December, Hoyer said.

Hoyer said that the health bill should help the fiscal picture; the Congressional Budget Office expects savings of about $140 billion this decade and far more in the bill's second decade.

Hoyer acknowledged Republican concerns that those savings may not be realized, as they're based on measures lawmakers may be reluctant to enact. The health bill's savings come through Medicare cuts, which Democrats said won't affect seniors' quality of care, and through new taxes on high-income earners.

He called on lawmakers to have the "courage" to stick by them.

"Those savings are contingent on Congress keeping its pledge to take hard votes," Hoyer said.

"Congress does not have a good track record on that objective," he added.

The $1 trillion deficits, projected by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), would eventually lead to unsustainable levels of debt that would hamper worker productivity, wages and the overall economy, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf has said. The 2010 deficit is expected to hit $1.5 trillion, which would be equal to 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product, according to CBO. While that deficit level should bottom out around 4 percent of GDP as the economy recovers over the next five years, the White House and independent economists said the maximum sustainable level for deficits is around 3 percent.

Hoyer said both parties will need to educate the country about its looming fiscal obligations and must be willing to discuss all types of fiscal solutions.

"Both Republicans and Democrats have to come to the table without preconditions," he said. "You can't rule out any solution, on the revenue side or the spending side. We can't give into the temptation to turn this defining challenge to the subject of demagoguery."

Hoyer dismissed House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) for proposing that Congress vote on the fiscal commission's proposals before the November election. That would leave the panel's negotiations vulnerable to election-year politics, he said.

"It would simply become the object of politics in September and October and every member would be asked to sign a pledge that we will not cut this or that," Hoyer said.