Simpson-Bowles Supporters Get Campaign Backing in Return

Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles
Alan Simpson, left, and Erskine Bowles pose for a portrait at the Russell Senate office building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Republican Representative Charlie Bass was among only 38 U.S. House members who voted in March for a deficit-cutting measure based on a proposal by the leaders of President Barack Obama’s Simpson-Bowles commission.

Last week, the co-chairmen -- Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson -- returned the favor, supporting Bass in an uphill fight for an eighth term in a Democratic-leaning New Hampshire district. Earlier, Bowles endorsed former Maine Governor Angus King, an independent, for an open Senate seat. Simpson and Bowles appeared at a “fiscal summit” with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat on the Nov. 6 ballot.

More endorsements may follow, Simpson said in an interview, for lawmakers who back a debt-cutting plan that opens them to opposition from interest groups.

“Anyone who comes aboard gets savaged by the realtors, the AARP, and Grover Norquist,” said Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming. “We love combat. And we appreciate people who appreciate what we did.” AARP is the biggest U.S. advocacy group for senior citizens, while Norquist is an anti-tax advocate.

Entitlement Cuts

In 2010, Simpson and Bowles recommended cuts to Social Security and Medicare, as well as $1 trillion in tax increases by curbing deductions such as the one for home-mortgage interest. Now, they are promoting their plan to cut $3.8 trillion from the deficit for a lame-duck session of Congress after the election.

Simpson and Bowles, former White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, are meeting this week with a bipartisan group of eight senators seeking to avert a “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and automatic spending cuts at year’s end. Simpson, 81, and Bowles, 67, also plan to begin a $30 million campaign to build public support for a debt deal.

Yet as Simpson and Bowles return to the limelight, their plan was never embraced by Republican leaders, who reject tax increases, or top congressional Democrats, who won’t support major cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security. The plan was rejected by the debt commission members, including Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, and Obama didn’t push for it.

The Senate never voted on the Simpson-Bowles plan. When Bass and other House members supported it in March, it was defeated, 382-38, as an alternative to a non-binding budget bill.

‘Phony Aura’

“It’s got a phony aura of success around it,” said Stan Collender, managing director of Qorvis Communications LLC in Washington and a former House and Senate budget committee aide. “It’s easy to support it in general, but when you get to specifics it will be as hard to pass as anything.”

In the Oct. 3 presidential debate, the plan came up but didn’t get any takers. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney avoided endorsing the Simpson-Bowles proposal, while also chastising Obama for not championing it.

“I have my own plan,” Romney said. “It’s not the same as Simpson-Bowles. But in my view, the president should have grabbed it. If you wanted to make some adjustments to it, take it, go to Congress, fight for it.”

The lack of support isn’t stopping the two debt-commission leaders.

Senators’ Meeting

In late July, Bowles met with more than 40 senators in the Capitol at the invitation of Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican. The two senators are leading the “Gang of Eight” that seeks a debt deal fashioned after the debt-commission plan.

Even though the meeting was interrupted three times by Senate votes, the lawmakers kept returning, said former Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who is aiding Bowles and attended the event.

The meetings with the eight senators this week are part of the effort to create a new version of the plan.

“We’re trying to develop a plan that can be used by members of Congress, called ‘Simpson-Bowles plus,’ if you will,” Gregg said. “We want to combine that with grassroots help and financial support to be there for members of Congress who need political support when they make these tough decisions.”

To that end, Simpson and Bowles founded the Campaign to Fix the Debt, along with Gregg and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat. The group has raised $30 million for television and radio ads and grassroots work in as many as 25 states, including New Hampshire and Colorado, to build support for a debt deal. Companies including Honeywell International Inc. and Blackrock Inc. are among the supporters, according to the group.

‘Act Responsibly’

“We need politicians to understand that they could spark a global recession with how they react” to the debt problem, “so they need to act responsibly and start working together,” David Cote, Honeywell’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement the group posted on its website last month.

Simpson’s and Bowles’s activity in individual campaigns started last month. Bowles endorsed King in a Sept. 8 column in the Portland Press Herald. The following day Bowles co-hosted a town-hall-style campaign event with King at the University of Southern Maine in Portland where the two talked about debt reduction.

King is promising to work for a broad-based, bipartisan deal if elected to the Senate, and is hammering Republican opponent Charlie Summers for signing a pledge promoted by Norquist that he won’t boost taxes if elected.

‘Unique Position’

“Angus King, as an independent, is in a unique position to bridge the partisan divide and negotiate a solution to the debt crisis,” Bowles wrote on the Portland Press Herald web site.

Bowles and Simpson appeared in Charleston, West Virginia, on Sept. 10 at a bipartisan “fiscal summit” sponsored by Manchin, a first-term Democrat who has spoken in favor of the commission recommendations on the Senate floor.

Support from Bowles and Simpson isn’t without its potential pitfalls. In New Hampshire, where Bass is running against Democratic attorney Ann Kuster, her campaign sees his backing of the debt-commission plan as an embrace of budget tradeoffs unpopular with voters, said her campaign spokesman, Rob Friedlander.

Kuster also criticizes Bass’s endorsement of a House Republican budget plan by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the party’s vice presidential nominee, because it would revamp Medicare by providing vouchers to buy private coverage.

‘Undermine Medicare’

“Congressman Bass has repeatedly voted to cut and undermine Medicare -- including his votes for both the Simpson-Bowles and Ryan budget plans,” Friedlander said in an e-mail. Kuster is favored by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report to win in November.

In endorsing Bass, Simpson and Bowles wrote in a letter to voters published in three New Hampshire newspapers Oct. 3 that he “put partisanship aside and stepped forward to make the tough decisions our nation needs.”

Bass said their support is giving him new traction and “enormous credibility” with New Hampshire voters, who he believes want to see a solution to Washington’s fiscal impasse. If he returns to Washington, he said, he intends to take a lead role in the debt debate.

“Solving these big problems can’t be delayed, and it’s resonating very positively,” Bass said in an interview. “Voters are really interested to see pragmatically how their elected officials are going to stop the debate and start the resolution.”

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