President Barack Obama is serious about compromising on higher income-tax rates for the rich, but other Democrats have failed to offer specifics on what spending they are willing to cut, the co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform said Wednesday.
Speaking during a breakfast with reporters, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson weren't optimistic that Congress and the White House would strike a deal to avoid going over the so-called fiscal cliff. Bowles, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said he put the odds at just 1-in-3 that there would be a deal before year's end.
"I believe that the probability is that we're going over the fiscal cliff," Bowles said, adding later, "I'm really worried."
Bowles said he came away from a meeting Tuesday with the president and his economic team thinking that "these guys were serious" about finding a solution. But he and Simpson criticized Congress as putting the nation's economy at risk by showing little urgency in resolving the expiring tax cuts and scheduled deep reductions in government spending.
"If this was any business or any family ... they'd have been working on it all year together," he said.
Regarding Tuesday's meeting with Obama, Bowles said the administration was willing to tax the rich less than stated publicly and that the president wanted a significant deal.
"I didn't sense it, I heard it," he said, adding that "I heard it not only from the team but from the president."
Obama staged a campaign-style event Wednesday at the White House. He called on ordinary Americans to text, email, write or call their lawmakers to pressure them for a resolution of the tax and budget issues. The president was flanked by "middle-class Americans" who he said would see their taxes go up by more than $2,000 a year if Congress can't reach a deal.
If Obama is saying in private that he's ready to deal, in public he continues to push his campaign pledge to raise taxes on the top-earning 2 percent of Americans, and on Wednesday he repeated his campaign theme that both parties agree on extending expiring the tax cuts for everyone else.
"Let's begin our work with where we agree," the president said. "If we get that done, a lot of the other stuff is going to be a lot easier."
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is scheduled to meet Thursday with congressional leaders of both parties, the White House said.
Bowles criticized his fellow Democrats for focusing on taxation while refusing to spell out where they're willing to reduce spending and by how much.
"We need to talk more about the spending side of the equation," he said, adding that Obama's projected spending cuts in his proposed 2013 budget aren't sufficient. Those include $340 billion in savings from Medicare and Medicaid programs and another $1.1 trillion in already agreed-on savings.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, picked up this theme in his own news conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill before he met with Bowles and Simpson. Republicans, he said, are willing to agree to more tax revenues but "it's time for the president and Democrats to get serious about the spending problem that our country has."
A lanky, folksy Republican former senator from Wyoming, Simpson rapped GOP lawmakers as intransigent, likening them to a rigid fireplace poker but "without the occasional warmth."
Political leaders of both parties largely ignored the national commission's 2010 recommendations, but now they're back in vogue. The co-chairmen, now dubbed "the Debt Duo," warned Wednesday against partial solutions that would just kick the can down the road.
"The can isn't a can now, it's a 55-gallon drum filled with explosives," Simpson said during a newsmaker breakfast organized by The Christian Science Monitor.
Similarly, letting the nation go over the fiscal cliff, leaving solutions until next year, carries unknown consequences for financial markets. Simpson said it amounted to "betting your country" in a poker game.
Bowles is mentioned frequently as a potential replacement for Geithner, who has said he will step aside after the fiscal-cliff negotiations conclude. Asked about that, Bowles, a North Carolina resident who presided over the last surplus in the nation's finances, said no thanks in his Southern drawl.
"I'm not a candidate for any (administration) job," he said, adding that "I'm going home to Charlotte, and I'm going to stay in Charlotte!"
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