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Suddenly, a rally behind tax cuts

Debt Commission co-chairmen Erskine Bowles, left, and former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, speak to the media after a meeting of the commission on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Defying expectations, a bipartisan majority of President Barack Obama‘s deficit commission has rallied behind the panel’s controversial deficit-slashing proposals.

A key Obama ally, liberal Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, endorsed the plan Thursday night, joining two of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans.

The plan now has public commitments of support from a majority of the 18-member commission, but it still will fall short of the 14 votes needed to officially adopt it when the deficit-cutting panel votes on Friday.

Among its many contentious provisions, the plan would raise the Social Security retirement age and scale back popular tax deductions on health insurance and mortgage interest.

Commission co-chairmen Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and former Wyoming GOP Sen. Alan Simpson have labored on the deficit issue for months, keeping all but the most partisan members involved in the commission’s work. Gaining the support of Durbin, a key Obama ally, was a major development.

“Borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar we spend for missiles or food stamps is unsustainable,” Durbin wrote in an op-ed piece in Friday’s Chicago Tribune. “When we engage in the critical decisions about our nation’s future budgets, I want progressive voices at the table to argue that we must protect the most vulnerable in our society and demand fairness in budget cuts.”

An announcement Thursday by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, in favor of the politically explosive plan to cut the deficit by almost $4 trillion over the coming decade gave the measure momentum from key Senate conservatives.

But two House Republicans on the panel announced they will oppose the plan, as expected. So did Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., a panel member.

But even opponents such as the future House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who also is on the commission, said it was a credible first step to build upon next year.

“It’s the memo that controls the meeting,” said panel member Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a supporter.

Durbin raised eyebrows Wednesday when he endorsed gradually raising the full Social Security retirement age from 67 to 69 over the next 65 years, and he resisted heavy pressure from labor unions and others in backing the plan.

“This plan is not perfect, and it is certainly not the plan I would have written,” Durbin wrote. “If we don’t act now — if we pass this issue on to another Congress, another generation — the tough choices we face now only get tougher.”

The plan also picked up support from the Senate’s No. 3 Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who said, “I’m going to do my best to support recommendations like these.”

Besides increasing the Social Security retirement age, the plan calls for reducing future increases to benefits in order to help control federal spending. It would eliminate or scale back tax breaks — including the child tax credit, mortgage interest deduction and deduction claimed by employers who provide health insurance — in exchange for rate cuts on corporate and income taxes. It would raise the federal gasoline tax 15 cents a gallon to fund transportation programs.

The plan, which was unveiled Wednesday, elicited catcalls from advocates on the left — over cuts to Social Security and other programs — and conservatives who oppose its estimated $1 trillion or so in higher tax revenues over the coming decade.

Baucus announced Thursday he couldn’t support it. He said the plan “would cut pensions for military members, lower Social Security payments, raise the retirement age and limit Medicare benefits.”

The announcements by Durbin, Coburn and Crapo mean 10 of the 18 commissioners have publicly endorsed the plan. House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt Jr., D-S.C., is leaning in favor. His “yes” vote would bring at least 11 of the 18 commission members behind the plan, awarding Simpson and Bowles a political victory unforeseen when Obama established the deficit panel earlier this year.

Ryan and another plan critic, top House Ways and Means Committee Republican Dave Camp of Michigan, say it wouldn’t do enough to curb Medicare and Medicaid costs and would raise taxes too much. Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, are also against it.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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