New star of deficit talks is Judd Gregg

Former Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) is stepping up his role in building Republican support for a broad deficit-reduction plan.

Some lawmakers who want to pass a comprehensive deficit-reduction package at the end of this year or in early 2013 say Gregg has more influence within the Senate GOP conference than does former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), the co-chairman of the Simpson-Bowles commission. 

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Gregg and former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, the Democratic co-chairman of the commission created in 2010 by President Obama, met with a bipartisan group of about three dozen senators Tuesday afternoon to discuss deficit cutting. 

Simpson could not attend the meeting because he recently returned to his home in Wyoming from a trip to California.

Supporters of the Simpson-Bowles plan laud Simpson’s contribution, but some see Gregg as ideally suited to step in to work with jittery GOP senators on an ambitious plan to raise hundreds of billions of dollars in new tax revenues. 

Gregg, a columnist for The Hill who endorsed Mitt Romney in the GOP presidential primary, has written often in recent weeks on the need for Congress to act soon to cut the nation’s massive deficit. 

“Another run at reaching a structured and thoughtful bipartisan plan is going to be far more attractive. It should not only reduce the debt, but also strengthen our competitiveness as a country along the lines of Simpson-Bowles,” he wrote in a Monday column. “This is a time when those who have been elected to govern have an opportunity to do just that.” 

Gregg told The Hill on Tuesday that he hopes to “offer any assistance to reinvigorate” the Simpson-Bowles plan, which he described as a “comprehensive effort to get our deficit and debt under control.”

“We’re going to try to be constructive and try to be as specific as people want us to be,” he said of his effort with Bowles. “It seems there’s a very large group of members on both sides of the aisle who are actively trying to pull together an effort to get something done.”

Gregg, a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission and a former Budget Committee chairman, said, “I do genuinely believe the Simpson-Bowles commission is the only viable [blueprint] out there that is bipartisan and substantive.”

Democrats and Republicans have praised Gregg, who initially accepted a 2009 offer from Obama to serve in the Cabinet. Gregg later withdrew his nomination.

“Most other senators have great respect for Judd Gregg and his financial acumen. So we listen to him,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). 

“He’s been here more recently and he was invited to sit in on leadership meetings by the last three Republican leaders even though he wasn’t elected to a leadership position,” said Alexander, noting that former Republican leaders Trent Lott (Miss.) and Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the current leader, all invited Gregg to attend high-level strategy sessions. 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who has helped lead the effort to build bipartisan support for a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan, said Gregg “brings a lot of credibility to the table.”

“I expect Judd to be very involved,” he said. 

Simpson is a media favorite, but his propensity for unique sound bites has at times become a distraction. 

In 2010 he called Social Security a “milk cow with 310 million tits,” spurring one liberal group to launch a campaign to oust him as co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. 

Simpson caused the firestorm with a caustic email to the Older Women’s League and later apologized, calling his gaffe a “doozy.”

Simpson has often publicly clashed with Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax group, whom Democrats view as a serious obstacle to getting a broad deficit-reduction deal. 

Norquist has repeatedly ripped the Simpson-Bowles plan, saying it would violate his group’s anti-tax pledge. 

Simpson has lambasted Norquist’s influence on congressional Republicans, a critique that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) often repeats. 

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who attended Tuesday’s meeting, rejected any suggestion that Simpson’s role will be minimized. He noted that the updated version of the deficit plan is being referred to as “Simpson-Bowles 2.0,” adding that senators hope to put the plan in legislative language in the coming months. 

In March, a House version of Simpson-Bowles was roundly rejected, 38-382.

Simpson said in an interview Tuesday that Gregg “can be very helpful” in persuading more Republicans to support an ambitious plan to reduce the mounting federal debt. 

“Judd has a tremendous expertise,” he said. 

Simpson said Gregg’s ties to the Senate GOP leadership would be helpful. But he added that the biggest incentive Republicans have to sign on to a deal is the looming fiscal cliff.

“What will begin to urge people is Dec. 31 — that will urge people in stirring ways. It will be riveted in the minds of the faint-hearted and the brave,” he said, referring to the impending expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax rates and $1.2 billion in automatic spending cuts scheduled to take place. 

Unemployment benefits and the payroll tax holiday are also due to expire. 

Gregg said Tuesday’s visit was only his second trip to the Capitol since retiring from the upper chamber in 2010. He spends most of his time in New Hampshire these days, serving on public boards and teaching at Dartmouth College. 

He does not lobby and does not have any conflicts that could pose a problem while advocating for a bipartisan deficit package. 

— Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.