Simpson anticipates challenge serving on deficit panel

2010-02-18T00:15:00Z Simpson anticipates challenge serving on deficit panelRUFFIN PREVOST Gazette Wyoming Bureau The Billings Gazette
February 18, 2010 12:15 am  • 

CODY — Residents of Alan K. Simpson’s hometown will get a chance Sunday to screen the first half of a recently completed documentary about the former senator’s family history and political career.

It already needs a sequel.

The tireless statesman has raced ahead to a new chapter in his public life, as President Barack Obama is expected today to formally announce Simpson’s role as co-chair of a panel aimed at taming the federal budget deficit.

Simpson, 78, joins Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, in leading a bipartisan commission in search of recommendations for slashing the swelling deficit.

“It is going to be difficult, maybe a complete zero,” he said by phone on Wednesday from Washington, D.C.

“But I’ll tell you one thing, when we’re through, people will know a hell of a lot more than where we are now,” he said.

Known as a tough bipartisan legislator unafraid to tackle difficult issues, Simpson was a key player in pushing through deficit reduction legislation in the 1990s.

He served in the Senate from 1979 to 1997, part of that time as the second-highest-ranking Republican, chairing a Senate subcommittee on Social Security.

“It’s got to be corrected,” Simpson said of the sacrosanct entitlement program. “The thing was set up when life expectancy was 57 years. That’s why they set the date at 65. It’s not a retirement, it’s an income supplement.”

“It’s the same with these Medicare Part B premiums. The beneficiary pays only 25 percent, and the guy washing dishes at the Irma Hotel pays the other 75 cents,” he said.

Simpson said he joked with Bowles recently about their “suicide mission.”

“I have no idea whether we’ll succeed, but we need to move the ball forward,” he said.

Simpson said he was contacted by Vice President Joe Biden, who served with him in the Senate, and was asked to help lead the panel. After talking it over with his wife and three grown children, he decided to take on the task.

“I’ve always tried to work with the other side. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. So you might as well do,” he said. “Just to sit on the sidelines and watch the political harshness and pettiness is disappointing to me.”

Simpson condemned what he said was a political climate where some “use hate and fear” as campaign tools, citing as an example the recent decision by Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana not to seek re-election because many “in his own party consider him too conservative.”

“You also have those same schisms in the Republican Party,” he said, criticizing a group of seven Republicans who sponsored a bill to establish a congressional deficit commission only to later vote against their own measure.

Simpson said he expects to hear criticism from fiery partisans opposed to compromise. But he heard the same opposition in 2006 when he was part of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Only about five of the group’s 79 recommendations were adopted at first by the Bush administration, but more than 45 of them have since been implemented, including key provisions calling for a phased withdrawal. Even Iraqis who opposed the group’s recommendations have since embraced many of them, he said.

“Now, with this commission, somebody has said we’re a stalking horse for new taxes. Well, no, we’re a stalking horse for our grandchildren,” Simpson said.

He said the commission’s recommendations are to be presented in December, timed to avoid playing a role in the November elections.

Simpson said the group will include “people who are concerned about the future of the country.”

“We may not always agree. We may not ever agree. But we’ll all be people interested in the next generational cycle instead of the next election cycle,” he said.

Simpson said the growing national debt is too important to ignore.

“It will affect everybody in the country, and no one will escape it,” he said.

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