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Pelosi flips, backs Bowles-Simpson plan she had called ‘simply unacceptable’

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday threw her support behind the sweeping budget proposal crafted by President Obama's fiscal commission, a plan she once deemed "simply unacceptable."

The California Democrat said she only voted against a budget amendment Wednesday that was based on the recommendations of fiscal commission co-chairmen Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles because the package had been altered.

The budget amendment, sponsored by Reps. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), was a "caricature" of the Simpson-Bowles plan, Pelosi charged. She said she would have supported the original plan had it been offered up for a vote.

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"They advertised it as Simpson-Bowles, but they changed the spending and revenue provisions in it, and so it did not receive support on either side of the aisle because it was not a good idea," Pelosi said during her weekly press briefing in the Capitol.

"I felt fully ready to vote for that [Simpson-Bowles] myself, thought it was not even a controversial thing. But it is not what that is," she added. "And swings of tens-of-billions of dollars mean something in terms of the lives of the American people."

Pressed if she would have supported Simpson-Bowles in its initial iteration, Pelosi said, "Yes, yes."

Pelosi, however, hasn't always been enthusiastic about the fiscal commission's plan. When Bowles and Simpson unveiled a preliminary version of their proposal in November 2010, the California liberal panned the plan as benefiting the wealthy at the expense of seniors and the middle class.

"This proposal is simply unacceptable," Pelosi said in a statement at the time. "Any final proposal from the commission should do what is right for our children and grandchildren’s economic security as well as for our nation’s fiscal security, and it must do what is right for our seniors, who are counting on the bedrock promises of Social Security and Medicare.”

She suggested the commission's plan would undermine a middle class already "under siege for the last decade and unable to withstand further encroachment on their economic security.”

Pelosi's office quickly took steps to soften those comments, saying the proposal did not meet her standards of job creation, deficit reduction and Social Security preservation – "at this time." 

Pelosi did not issue a statement when the final Simpson-Bowles plan was issued, and in subsequent comments has voiced support for certain elements of the plan but never the whole package.

Asked about Pelosi's newfound support for the plan, Cooper on Thursday shook his head.

"The leader will have to speak for herself," he said. 

Some supporters of the Simpson-Bowles plan had warned against bringing up something similar during a politically charged week when both parties are jockeying for a political budget advantage heading into November's elections. But LaTourette and Cooper thought otherwise, hoping to build momentum for the concept of a grand bargain to cut trillions in deficit spending while spreading the pain equally enough to attract members of both parties. Instead, the bill received just 38 "yes" votes.

A number of Democrats who said they would support the measure on Wednesday afternoon — including Reps. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, and Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus — changed their minds just hours later when the proposal hit the floor.

Fueling the Democrats' switch, the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) hours before the vote condemned the Cooper-LaTourette amendment as "to the right" of Bowles-Simpson.

The amendment, CBPP pointed out, assumes an extension of the Bush-era tax rates for even the wealthiest Americans — a provision most Democrats reject as fiscally irresponsible. As a result, LaTourette-Cooper effectively generated $1 trillion less revenue than Bowles-Simpson.

The CBPP also objected to the $100 billion in discretionary cuts in LaTourette-Cooper above Bowles-Simpson, as well as a cap on federal healthcare spending indexed at an inflation rate that ignores the growth of the beneficiary population. Bowles-Simpson was more vague on Medicare, punting most of those details to policymakers.

"When we had our briefing with our caucus members, people felt pretty ready to vote for it, until we saw it in print," Pelosi said Thursday of the LaTourette-Cooper amendment. 

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a strong proponent of Bowles-Simpson, also voted against Wednesday's amendment, but for a different reason. He said such a sweeping plan will require time to build strong bipartisan support, and the LaTourette-Cooper amendment hit the floor prematurely, he said, before "a broad consensus could be achieved." 

Cooper on Thursday defended his amendment, saying it had the same 2-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes as Bowles-Simpson, no matter what baseline is used.

The Tennessee Blue Dog expressed frustration with those who supported Bowles-Simpson but not his proposal.

"A surprising number of folks involved in the negotiations voted against this. It's amazing," Cooper said, acknowledging Hoyer was one of these. "I don't know how they explain this back home."

Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), a Blue Dog Democrat who supported Cooper's amendment, said Wednesday's poor showing of support is not a setback for finding the elusive grand bargain on deficit reduction.

"We will not stop working until we have the broad bipartisan consensus necessary to pass a large-scale, comprehensive deficit reduction plan, and we are confident we will achieve that goal at a later point this year," Shuler said through a spokesperson.

Across the aisle, many Republicans have been wary of supporting either Bowles-Simpson or LaTourette-Cooper due to the opposition from Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, which has said both proposals would break the group's anti-tax pledge that many lawmakers have signed.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who is also involved in the deficit-reduction talks, said Norquist and Heritage Action spooked many GOP members who had been prepared to vote "yes."

House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE (R-Ohio) said the paltry vote for Bowles-Simpson shows that lawmakers are "pretty divided" over how to reduce the deficit.

"While I support this bipartisan group and all of the efforts they’ve put into this, they were doing it in the middle of a pretty heated philosophical debate about which is the best way forward," he said. 

"I don’t know how much reaching out they were doing to garner more votes."

Asked if he supported the Bowles-Simpson plan, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE replied, "I would be supporting the House Republican budget."

This story was updated at 3:11 p.m.