Deficit hawks, debt panel heads work to keep focus on long-term solutions

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and the former heads of the president’s debt commission will strive in the coming days to turn attention away from the battle over 2011 spending and back onto the nation’s long-term fiscal woes.

For many deficit hawks, the increasingly acrimonious battle over spending levels for 2011 is a distraction that risks making a bipartisan agreement on the deficit more difficult.

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They view the next week as crucial to keeping Congress focused on larger solutions, such as tax and entitlement reform and defense spending, rather than the non-security and non-entitlement spending that constitutes only 12 percent of the budget.

Conrad will hold a Tuesday hearing featuring debt commission chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. On Tuesday, the chairmen and Conrad will headline the launch of the “Moment of Truth Project,” a new campaign to promote a long-term deficit solution.

Fellow debt commission members Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will also speak.

These senators and former officials are involved in ongoing talks to put the recommendations of the debt commission into legislation. They are trying to keep a spirit of bipartisanship in the face of tit-for-tat attacks between Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) over a spending bill to fund the government through Sept. 30.

Conrad views the raging debate over a continuing resolution for 2011 as a lost opportunity to restore fiscal sanity.

Conrad told The Hill that he would have preferred Congress pass a longer-term continuing resolution than the two-week CR enacted on March 2. This could have set up a grand bargain involving the CR, the 2012 budget resolution, and the vote to raise the debt ceiling, expected in late April at the earliest.

“It would have been much better to have extended the CR until the time of the budget resolution, so we could have a comprehensive package,” Conrad said.

He said that the group of six senators working on a debt commission bill are not near ready to unveil it and are not ready to include House members in the talks. Because of this, a grand plan is not ready to be wrapped into ongoing CR talks between congressional leaders and the White House.

Instead of the presidential deficit summit Conrad has been seeking, the White House is now leading talks that are only focused on 2011 spending.

National Economic Council director Gene Sperling said Thursday that the talks could touch on other matters like the debt ceiling but the focus is 2011 spending.

Deficit experts said the CR debate is a sideshow, but failure to reach a deal could force a crisis where a long-term grand solution emerges. This is why they see the coming days as crucial to increase momentum.

“I think that the short-term stuff is a distraction,” Bob Bixby of the Concord Coalition said. “The more important thing is to keep up the pressure on the longer term issues, the tax reform and the entitlements.”

“You don’t want to have a bloody battle for a puny result,” Maya MacGuineas of the New America Foundation said.

She said things can look ugly in the middle of a negotiation, but if done right the talks over the CR could build trust toward a larger solution.

She said that a comprehensive package is key because the Republican focus on 2011 spending cuts doesn’t really fix the problem.

Members would sacrifice cherished programs but there would be no payoff, she said.

Bixby said that the CR debate could provide a crisis within weeks that leads to a larger deficit solution and for this reason it is important to keep awareness of the debt commission high.

Bixby and MacGuineas said they were heartened by statements this week by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that he will take on entitlement reform this year, but they said they did not know what that effort would look like in terms of legislation.

Conrad and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are expected to unveil 2012 budget proposals sometime this month. In the absence of a grand bargain, there is little expectation among observers that the two proposals will be reconciled into a 2012 concurrent budget resolution.

The lack of a budget could trigger a further breakdown of the spending process and lead to government by temporary spending bills in 2012, as has been the case so far this year.