The audacious final report of President Barack Obama's budget commission, which proposed squeezing nearly $4 trillion from federal deficits over the next decade through painful and politically explosive spending cuts and tax increases, drew mixed reviews from Texas lawmakers Wednesday.
While legislators from across the political spectrum praised the bipartisan panel's commitment to confronting the record-breaking budget deficits and $13.9 trillion in accumulated debt, many disagreed with the hard choices the commission made to stem the tide of red ink.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said hiking the retirement age to 69 "is a non-starter," while Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, complained the blue-ribbon panel had excluded social safety-net programs from the budget ax.
"Every federal program and agency should be on the chopping block," Poe said.
The commission's work underscores the dramatically altered Washington landscape after November's midterm elections, which saw anti-spending fervor sweep some longtime Democrats, including House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt of South Carolina, from office.
The 59-page report by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform - released Wednesday by co-chairs Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, and former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. - included 44 provocative cost-cutting proposals. They would gore a variety of sacred cows in the nation's capital, including such cherished middle-class benefits as the home mortgage interest tax deduction.
The report, ominously titled The Moment of Truth, also called for a phased hike in the Social Security retirement age to 68 by 2050 and 69 by 2075; a doubling of the federal gasoline tax; a three-year freeze in federal pay; eliminating 200,000 federal jobs; an end to legislative earmarks; top-to-bottom tax reforms; and a near-freeze on any increases in the Pentagon budget.
If adopted, the proposal would slash the deficit from 9 percent of the nation's economic output this year to zero in 2035, and would reduce the total government debt from 62 percent of the gross domestic product to 40 percent.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, whose congressional district stretches to the Houston suburbs, called the report "a serious proposal"
"While not perfect, it deserves serious consideration," he said. "It's time for us to get serious about what we cut."
Wednesday's report is the first step in a protracted process expected to grip the nation's capital for months to come as elected officials struggle to bring federal spending into line with federal revenue. And while the push for deficit reduction was bipartisan, there is no consensus - even on the 18-member commission - about the best path to a balanced budget.
While the Senate Budget Committee's chairman, Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and top Republican, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, endorsed the report, two key House Republicans on the commission, incoming Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Dallas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the House Republican Conference chairman, expressed skepticism about what they considered excessive tax rates and support for the newly enacted health care law.
The mixed response demonstrates just how difficult it will be for the panel to translate its plan into policy. Nothing in the report is binding. And the co-chairs need to muster 14 votes on the commission during Friday's final meeting just to make their recommendation "official." Even then, President Obama and the congressional leadership would not be required to adopt any of its initiatives.
"There are a lot of very hard and some might even say ugly decisions that are going to have to be made," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-San Antonio.
Cornyn, who supports a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, declined to address the report's policy prescriptions.
"I wouldn't embrace specific recommendations at this point," he said, "because I think we need to look at the overall picture."
Plenty of opinions
Other Republicans challenged the proposals for not tackling some expensive programs.
Poe, for example, said foreign aid to "unfriendly anti-American countries" would be a good place to make cuts.
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, vice chairman of the House-Senate Economic Committee, said the plan "accelerates and institutionalizes" Obama's health care reform .
Republicans also gave a wide berth to the report's suggestion that the federal gasoline tax be doubled to 30 cents a gallon by 2015.
Any increases in personal or business taxes "must be off the table," insisted Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land. "Lower tax rates coupled with fiscal discipline are the key to economic growth."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Dallas, emphasized that she would "never support raising taxes in this economy - the tax burden on Americans is already too high."
Among Democrats, Rep. Gene Green of Houston said federal spending needs to be "drastically restructured," but the 18-year House veteran cautioned that Medicare spending cuts and other proposed health care changes need "further detail."
Still, said Jackson Lee, "I support the commission as an important opportunity for a real discussion on spending in a bipartisan way."