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Simpson-Bowles Re-Emerges as Framework for Compromise

Sep. 23, 2012 - 12:38PM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
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Simpson-Bowles is back.

Several small groups of U.S. senators from both political parties are quietly trying to piece together legislation that would avoid twin $500 billion cuts to national defense and domestic programs.

While those lawmakers and their aides are tight-lipped about the ideas being bandied about, there appears to be a common starting point: a set of proposals first put forward in 2010 by a presidentially created commission.

“It’s definitely in play — at least parts of it are,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said.

That commission’s work is commonly referred to as the Simpson-Bowles report, colloquially named after its co-chairmen: former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Erskine Bowles, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff.

If lawmakers this year or early next year are able to set aside partisan conflict long enough to pass a $1.2 trillion deficit-paring plan, lawmakers and sources say they doubt it will mirror the Simpson-Bowles panel’s work. But, much like negotiating to buy an automobile, the commission’s report has served as a starting point for talks between Democrats and Republicans.

“Many of the concepts of Bowles-Simpson have always been in play,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., flipping the co-chairs’ names. “Bowles-Simpson has been an outline. Its details are very important.

“There are a number of discussions going on [among senators] around a balanced look at how we deal with sequestration,” Corker said. “They’re not necessarily just Bowles-Simpson, but Bowles-Simpson has paved the way for those discussions to start from some place.”

Corker told Defense News that he is “talking to a number of people on both sides” about a broad deficit-cutting legislative package.

McCaskill, an Armed Services Committee member, said a group of a dozen or so senators from both parties is quietly in talks about what might constitute a massive debt-reduction package.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, told reporters he continues to be involved in talks and knows of several bipartisan groups that are doing the same. But he declined to comment when asked whom he is talking to, or when asked to describe the composition of those groups.

The Simpson-Bowles plan proposed slashing Pentagon spending by just more than $100 billion.

As for specifics, it advocated a military pay freeze and sizable annual cuts to military acquisition coffers by making major changes or killing programs such as the

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft. The commission’s report also proposed reducing the U.S. military footprint in Europe and Asia.

“It remains on the table ... as simply a framework for being able to accomplish the kind of debt reduction that we need to maintain fiscal security,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., a member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). “I don’t think both parties have paid close enough attention to it.”

Members of both political parties agree — but only that the other party did too little to enact its recommendations after Simpson and Bowles delivered their report to the president in late 2010. Democrats accuse Republicans of rejecting its revenue suggestions; Republicans often accuse President Barack Obama of, as several have described it, putting the report on a shelf to collect dust.

Some are paying closer attention to it nearly two years later. And that is giving some lawmakers and Washington insiders confidence a broad fiscal package could be passed in either a post-election lame-duck session this year or the opening months of a new congressional session next year.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Senate Armed Services Committee member with a history of reaching across the political divide, has recently talked publicly about a “mini-Simpson-Bowles” plan.

Marvin Sambur, a former senior Air Force civilian official-turned-consultant, told Defense News reporters and editors recently that what is needed is “a Simpson-Bowles plan with a mandate.”

“It’s not enough to just do a study,” Sambur said. “You have got to say, ‘Here it is. Now implement.’”

Though senators are talking about a broader fiscal package to prevent the $500 billion in planned defense cuts, any sequestration-avoidance measure would require both chambers’ approval.

So what kind of talks are going on among House members?

“None, to my knowledge,” said one senior House lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak bluntly.

Johnson said he is not involved in any negotiations and “hasn’t heard of any talks that are going on in the House.”

A senior GOP House Armed Services Committee aide, during a Sept. 14 conference call with reporters, appeared to quash any lingering hopes for a pre-Election Day deal.

“We’ll return in the lame-duck [session] and hope we can get the Senate to come up with [its] own plan” for avoiding sequestration, the aide said, noting the House has approved several measures that would do just that.

But none of those bills, which passed largely along party lines, is going anywhere in the Senate.

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