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Panel Co-Chair: All Options On Table To Cut Deficit

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, President Obama took a new turn at tackling the nation's mounting debt, which is now more than $12 trillion. He signed an executive order to create a national commission on fiscal responsibility and reform. That commission's job is to come up with ways to reduce federal budget deficits that now exceed a trillion dollars a year.

BLOCK: Mr. Obama named former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, of Wyoming, and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles to head the bipartisan panel. I sat down with the two men earlier today, to talk about what they hope to achieve.

Senator Simpson and Mr. Bowles, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Mr. ALAN SIMPSON (Former Senator, Republican, Wyoming): Thank you.

Mr. ERSKINE BOWLES (White House Chief of Staff, Clinton Administration): Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: Senator Simpson, you have joked with your co-chairman here about this new job. You called it a suicide mission. You think this is a kamikaze run for you, too?

Mr. SIMPSON: Well, I tell you, I think that there is a pleasure involved in knowing who my co-chairman is, Erskine. People say, well, what are you, you know? Somebody said, you're a stalking horse for this, for that - and I said, we're stalking horses for our grandchildren. This is a critical issue. And I have to handle it with humor or else you'd cry because if the people of America can't figure out where they're headed - and there isn't a single person in this administration or on the Hill or in either party that knows exactly where we're headed with these huge things, which can wipe out all discretionary spending within the next 20 years. And so, here we go off the cliff together, joining hands into the great sea, the wine-dark Aegean Sea.

Mr. BOWLES: Like Icarus, when his wings melted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: We're getting deep here. Mr. Bowles, your colleague here, Senator Simpson, is speaking tongue-in-cheek. But this all does reflect the perilous ground you're entering here. The assumptions going in here would be, you would have to raise taxes and severely cut spending on treasured entitlement programs, right?

Mr. BOWLES: Look, it's going to be tough. The great thing is, the president has told us: Everything is on the table. This is not a Republican or a Democrat issue. This is a challenge for our country.

BLOCK: You said everything's on the table. Would one thing on the table be, we have to raise the retirement age?

Mr. BOWLES: Everything's on the table. If we start this process by taking things off the table, we'll never get there.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the sharply divisive political climate that you two are entering. Senator Simpson, congressional Republicans have been dismissive of this commission. In fact, seven Republicans who initially proposed the bill, sponsored the bill creating this commission, ended up voting against it. What is your message to them?

Mr. SIMPSON: Well, get aboard or else forget your own grandchildren. I'd love to know why all seven of them voted against the package. All I know is that out of goodwill, if we can get to people of goodwill - and I think Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, who I know quite well, will appoint people to this commission that will hopefully, realize that the country is bigger than the politics.

BLOCK: Erskine Bowles, when you were in the Clinton White House, the Republicans got the majority in both Houses. There was a divided government - and some would say it was easier to be bipartisan then. You both needed each other, and you were able to get a balanced budget agreement through. Now - very different time now, do you think? Are you facing tougher challenge?

Mr. BOWLES: Times are always different. But I can tell you, when President Clinton announced he was bringing me back to balance the budget, not a soul believed it could be done. But you know, I went to see the speaker, and I went to see the majority leader and the minority leaders in both Houses. And I said, look, we're going to have to work together to get this budget balanced. And I earned their trust. And that's what I think Senator Simpson and I will do in this process. We've got to earn people's trust.

BLOCK: Your recommendations will come out by December, after the midterm elections. You cannot force a congressional vote on what you recommend. What happens after your work is done, do you think? Senator Simpson first.

Mr. SIMPSON: Don't ask me. I just know that we will have pushed the ball down the field a little further. I can promise you that the issue will be moved forward so that when the demagogues get up on their hind legs - from the left or the right, or the flat Earth or the round Earth society - that they will know that there's no escape from where we're headed, no escape at all. So instead of babbling into the vapors, it's hey Jack or Jill, what the hell are you going to do now?

BLOCK: Let's talk just a bit about the numbers. I mean, if you look at last year's deficit $1.4 trillion, nearly 10 percent of GDP. The goal for this is what, to get it to 3 percent by 2015? That's going to be painful, right?

Mr. BOWLES: Look, there are no easy choices. We've got a $1.6 trillion deficit. We've got public debt of about $9.3 trillion - that's about 64 percent of GDP. If we don't do something about it, it will gobble this budget up. Just stop and think. If you just look at the 10-year projections, interest alone is projected to go from $188 billion - to increase by $650 billion. That's over $800 billion. Think what we could do with those resources if we had them to put in education or innovation or research. This is an issue we have to tackle.

BLOCK: Before we started the interview, we were chatting about your grandchildren. And I wonder if that's really what's guiding you through this - is their future, and what's in store. Senator Simpson?

Mr. SIMPSON: Well, I'm not kidding at all. I watched last year when they were all grappling with Social Security, with the privatization, whatever, whatever -and that to me that's very significant issue - but all I can tell you is unless we do something there won't be anything there for them. It'll be there, but it will be 75 percent of what they expected to get instead of a hundred. And as I say, I've spent a whole lifetime among the naysayers. I've always said we're here on earth to do things for others. And what the others are doing here I haven't the foggiest idea. And there are a lot of bitchers and whiners and snorters out there and we intend to listen to them all and then crush them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMPSON: I didn't mean that. Must have been a sick thing.

BLOCK: Erskine Bowles, anything you'd like to add to that?

Mr. BOWLES: Oh, I love Alan Simpson.

BLOCK: What about your grandchildren?

Mr. BOWLES: I've got seven grandkids under 4. They are my life. If we don't do something about this this is, to me, like me going out and buying a brand-new Cadillac, driving it all over the world, and beating it up until it's not worth very much. But I charged it to my grandkids. We have got to take this on, and Alan and I are both determined to lead this effort.

BLOCK: Erskine Bowles, Alan Simpson, thank you both very much.

Mr. SIMPSON: Thank you.

Mr. BOWLES: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Alan Simpson is a former Republican senator from Wyoming. Erskine Bowles was President Clinton's chief of staff. They are the co-chairs of President Obama's new, bipartisan commission on the deficit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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