Simpson's remarks provide ammunition for critics of Obama's fiscal panel

Simpson's remarks provide ammunition for critics of Obama's fiscal panel

Alan Simpson has survived calls for his ouster from President Obama's fiscal commission, but critics of the panel are using the former senator's controversial remarks to try to torpedo the commission itself.

A leading liberal group who pressed for Simpson’s dismissal over his blunt remarks on Social Security and veterans benefits now says it’s time to scrap the commission, too.

“I don’t think there’s any way it could come up with something for the benefit of the nation,” said Alex Lawson, spokesman for Social Security Works, a group backed by unions and other organizations on the left.

The White House has stood by Simpson, the president’s appointed co-chairman of the fiscal panel, even as liberals have criticized him for his sharp rhetoric on Social Security.

Simpson, a former Senate Republican whip from Wyoming, has used colorful language to describe Social Security, calling it a “milk cow with 310 million tits” in an e-mail to the author of a Huffington Post column questioning the deficit panel’s focus. Simpson also said that the author, the head of the Older Women’s League, should call him back when she finds “honest work.”

Simpson and the commission’s Democratic co-chairman, Erskine Bowles, have said they hope the fiscal panel comes up with proposals to extend the solvency of Social Security, which has enough money to pay out full benefits until 2037.

Liberal groups have called for Simpson’s removal from the commission, and a handful of House Democrats —including Reps. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Lynn Woolsey (Calif.) — have joined the cause.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday said the administration doesn’t condone Simpson’s comments but insisted he would continue to serve on the commission.

The calls for Simpson’s firing have grown in number since the White House stood by him, in part because of a comment he made about veterans benefits.

In an Associated Press story on an expected increase in the cost of Agent Orange disability payments to Vietnam veterans, Simpson said "the irony [is] that the veterans who saved this country are now, in a way, not helping us to save the country in this fiscal mess."

The liberal veterans group joined the calls for Simpson’s ouster after the Associated Press story was published.

One reason Obama chose Simpson to lead his panel was for his bluntness. In announcing Simpson to lead the commission last winter, the president called the Republican a “flinty Wyoming truth-teller.”

Simpson has said he's used to the criticism and expects more of it as head of the debt panel. During public appearances on the Hill, he often tells his commission colleagues to "watch out when they're using emotion, fear, guilt and racism on you in this game, because that's how you pass or kill anything in this joint."

President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal panel is working on a plan to rein in the country’s annual deficits, which are projected by the Congressional Budget Office to average nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. Democratic leaders in Congress have pledged to call floor votes on any proposal reported out of the commission.

Liberals wary of cuts to popular government programs and conservatives concerned about tax hikes have been looking for any opportunity to weaken the commission. Both sides seem to believe they’ve found their opening in going after the commission’s members.

The United Steelworkers union this week called for another commission member, Honeywell CEO David Cote, to step down because of a labor dispute that featured a lockout and an offer that cut employee health benefits in June.

“There are concerns about the makeup of the commission,” a House Democratic aide said. “If you look at their records and previous statements on Social Security, there appears to be an unfortunate focus on Social Security instead of putting forward something meaningful that addresses the deficit.”

Conservative activists who might be sympathetic to Simpson’s push to reform Social Security haven’t given him cover, as they remember Simpson’s past votes for tax increases. When he was in the Senate, Simpson voted for President George H.W. Bush’s 1990 budget deal and President Reagan’s 1982 tax compromise, both of which were crafted with Democrats and included tax hikes.

“He could have ended skepticism from taxpayers ... by saying ‘I voted for tax increases in 83, 90 and both times we never got the spending restraint we promised and that was a big mistake and will never happen again,’” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “Instead it’s been just the opposite; he keeps mouthing that he’s open to tax increases.”

President Obama and the commission’s members have said that “everything is on the table” for the panel as it tries to deal with the growing $13.3 trillion debt. The commission has yet to offer any concrete proposals, but it has divided itself into three subgroups, each of which is focused on a different part of the federal budget. One group is looking at taxes, another is focusing on discretionary spending and a third is scrutinizing mandatory spending, which includes Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The nature of the task that Simpson faces doesn’t make it easier for him, said former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the co-chairman of the most successful bipartisan panel in recent memory: the 9/11 Commission.

“I think the [fiscal] commission has a very important and very formidable task, so it is not surprising that you have differences of opinion on a commission with such a scope,” he said. “I hope of course that they come up with a unanimous report, which is very, very hard to do.”

A fiscal commission spokesman didn't have any comment when contacted for this story.