WASHINGTON — As President Obama’s bipartisan commission on reducing the mounting federal debt headed to its first meeting on Tuesday, the president told its members that “everything has to be on the table” as they consider options for reducing spending and increasing tax revenue.
Mr. Obama, appearing in the Rose Garden at the White House, recounted some steps his administration has already taken to restrain the growth of annual deficits. But he said, “This alone will not make up for the years in which those in Washington refused to make hard choices and live within their means. “And it will not make up for the failure to level with the American people about the costs of the services that they value,” he added. “This is going to require people of both parties to come together and take a hard look at the growing gap between what the government spends and what the government raises in revenue. And it will require that we put politics aside, and that we think more about the next generation than the next election.”
The president was flanked by his choices to chair the commission: Alan K. Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, a Democrat and former White House chief of staff. With a grin, Mr. Obama saluted them for their courage in accepting the assignment — a nod to the low expectations that many in Washington have for the commission, given the polarization between the parties, especially in an election year. Mr. Obama then left for Iowa for the next stop on his “Main Street Tour,” and the commission members walked across the street to an executive conference center for their three-hour inaugural meeting.
They were scheduled to hear from Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, who lately has said that elected officials must make “difficult choices” on taxes and spending as the economy recovers. Others who are scheduled to address the commission include Peter R. Orszag, the president’s budget director, and two former directors of the Congressional Budget Office, Robert Reischauer and Rudy Penner.
Mr. Bernanke and Mr. Penner are Republican appointees, while Mr. Orszag and Mr. Reischauer were appointed by Democrats. But all share a conviction that both cuts in spending and increases in revenue will be needed to bring down deficits, because as things stand, rising health-care costs and an aging population are widening the deficits to an unsustainable size.
Besides the chairmen, the 18-member panel, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, includes a dozen members of Congress, six each from the House and Senate, equally split between Republicans and Democrats. Mr. Obama named six other members, including the two chairmen; none are current lawmakers or administration officials, two are Republicans.
Republicans complain that Democrats outnumber Republicans on the commission 10 to 8, but Mr. Obama, in his executive order creating the panel, specified that it could not send proposals to Congress without support from at least 14 members. That in effect gives the Republicans a veto. Should the commission members reach agreement, however, the Democratic leaders in Congress have promised that they would be brought to a vote, first in the Senate.
Many Republicans still oppose the commission, saying it is a Trojan horse for tax increases, while some liberal groups are mobilizing to oppose what they expect will be proposals to reduce future Social Security
benefits. Mr. Obama established the commission by executive order in February after legislation to create a similar panel was defeated in the Senate by a group of Republicans who dropped their previous support for the bill.
The six Republican lawmakers on the panel have said they will not try to impose preconditions on its work, like refusing to consider any tax increase. Mr. Obama’s admonition that everything should be on the negotiating table also is widely seen as having potential political repercussions for him. It obliges him to be open to setting aside his campaign promise that 95 percent of Americans — all but the wealthiest — will not see their federal taxes rise during his term.
The commission is scheduled to make its report by Dec. 1, about a month after the midterm elections. It is charged with recommending ways to reduce the deficit in the fiscal year 2015 to the equivalent of 3 percent of the gross domestic product or less — nearly a percentage point smaller than it is now projected to be in that year. The panel is also to recommend long-term changes in taxes and spending for the major entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid
and Social Security — whose expected growth is the biggest factor in the deficit forecasts.