November 10, 2009 / 8:57 PM / 10 years ago

Senators eye commission to tackle budget crisis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Several U.S. senators said on Tuesday they probably could force Congress to cede some control to a bipartisan commission that would tackle the United States’ looming budget crisis.

Proponents say the panel is needed because Congress lacks the will to raise taxes or slash spending to reduce record budget deficits brought on by Bush-era tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and massive stimulus spending to fight the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.

The idea is unpopular with many Democrats in the House of Representatives who are wary of ceding control over spending and taxes, but it has gained ground in the Senate, where moderate Democrats are increasingly uneasy about debt levels.

“There are rare moments in this institution when we can implement fundamental change. This is one of those moments,” Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, who backs establishment of a budget commission, told the Senate Budget Committee.

Bayh is among a group of senators who aim to attach such a provision to legislation that would raise the federal government’s debt ceiling past a $12.1 billion limit. The extra funding is needed to allow it to continue functioning.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid probably will need the support of all 58 Democrats and two independents in the 100-member body Senate in order to pass the bill, which is likely to come up for consideration next month.

Roughly 15 Democratic senators will not vote to raise the debt ceiling if the legislation does not also set up a budget commission, according to Bayh and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad.

“I don’t see how they can avoid it,” Bayh told reporters. “There are enough of us who feel strongly about this that they are going to have to accompany that with a reform.”

Reid has been discussing the proposal with other senators and the Obama administration but no decisions have been made, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. The House would also have to agree to the decision, he said.

A commission — a tried-and-true Washington tactic for politicians to blame someone else for painful choices — could give Congress political cover to back the difficult measures needed to get the deficit under control, backers said.

But commissions have a mixed track record in U.S. politics. Some have helped to close unneeded military bases and keep the Social Security retirement program solvent, but many more have seen their recommendations ignored.

Reid and the White House, however, are “open-minded” about the idea, Bayh said.

Republicans, who have been critical of Obama’s spending measures, generally support the move — the Budget Committee’s top Republican, Senator Judd Gregg, is drafting a proposal with Conrad.

The United States posted a record $1.4 trillion deficit in the fiscal year ended September 30 as the recession caused tax revenues to plunge and spending skyrocketed.

Budget experts project that deficits will remain stubbornly high over the next 10 years even as the economy improves, due to ballooning spending on retirement and healthcare programs.

That could lead to increased borrowing costs, a weakened currency, and runaway inflation.

Editing by Paul Simao

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