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April 22. 2013 10:12PM

Political all-stars launch Rudman Center with talks on explosive federal debt

CONCORD - An all-star bipartisan cast of current and former U.S. senators and top bureaucrats invoked the memory of the late New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman Monday in urging President Obama and Capitol Hill Republicans to come together for a "grand bargain" to bring the runaway federal deficit and debt under control.

In the second half of a two-day event launching the Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership and Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire Law School, three former presidential candidates returned to the Granite State for a conference focusing on the federal budget, in particular entitlement programs, taxes and spending.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who won New Hampshire primaries in 2000 and 2008, said, "Absolutely there is a different tone coming out of the White House" in recent weeks, as shown by Obama's recent meetings with Republicans.

"Even though there is a distinct partisan flavor to Congress, we can and must fix a system that is headed for a train wreck," he said.

"My assessment is that the environment in Washington is more conducive to addressing the (fiscal) issues than at any time since Gramm-Rudman" in 1985.

McCain said that although prospects for a bipartisan deal appear bleak, the agreement reached on the so-called "Gang of Eight's" immigration reform plan, which he is a part of, "is an example of what we can do.

"Instead of saying the glass is mostly empty, I'm going to say there is a little bit in it," McCain said.

Republican former Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who ran for president in 1996 but dropped out of the race about a week before the New Hampshire primary, accused Obama of a lack of leadership, citing the failure of Congress to reach a deal on legislation that would have expanded background checks for gun sales.

"Presidents Reagan or Clinton could have worked out the gun issue in 30 minutes," he said. "The President so overplayed the issue and created so much hostility that he ended up losing on an issue that should have been worked out. He doesn't know how to cut a deal."

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who finished third in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, said it's impossible to work out a deal on any issue "if you keep saying your opponent is an unpatriotic, cowardly jerk."

"The President has to decide whether it's about a political victory or a legislative result," said New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte. "Both parties have to decide that. A political victory may make you feel good, but it doesn't come to a result."


Real reform

McCain said Congress and Obama can begin to cooperate by eliminating "outrageous" subsidies that "should have been done away with 20 years ago," such as ethanol, sugar and farm subsidies.

"Why don't we have the guts to do away with some of this junk?" he asked.

Gramm said a "grand plan" is actually easier to reach than a "little old crappy half-baked idea."

"People will cast a tough vote if they think they're changing America," he said.

Elections also play a key role, the senators said.

McCain said the Citizens United decision was "the worst decision in the history of the United States Supreme Court.

"At least the American people ought to know where the money came from," he said.

"If we're waiting for campaign finance reform" before reaching a deal, "we're in trouble," said Ayotte.

She said she believes Capitol Hill Republicans are open to more tax hikes "if there is meaningful entitlement reform or Social Security reform.

But, she said, "No way are you going to get Republicans to do a grand bargain without real reforms. They feel that after the way the President beat them down on past issues, there has to be something meaningful."

"We want our friends on the other side of the aisle to acknowledge there is a spending problem," said McCain.

But Kerrey said that for Democrats to embrace spending cuts or reform and Republicans to embrace more tax hikes, "It's not going to be possible with somebody (voters) saying, 'I'll never vote for you again.'


Possible solutions

In a second panel on possible solutions, former Bill Clinton administration Office of Management and Budget director Alice Rivlin, Republican former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, former top congressional staffer William Hoagland and Rudman co-founded Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert Bixby promoted a Medicare and tax reform plan released last week.

Rivlin said center officials brought the plan to the White House and detailed it for staffers.

"I think the President understands the problem very well and wants to get to a solution during his tenure," Rivlin said. "He feels that if he is for something, the Republicans are going to be against it and trash it. I think he's got to get over that."


Leadership deficit

The conference was opened by law school dean John Broderick, a former New Hampshire Supreme Court chief justice. Participants heard addresses from Republican former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, who is also involved in the Bipartisan Policy Center, and David Walker, U.S. Comptroller administrator during part of the Bill Clinton administration and the eight years of the George W. Bush administration.

Walker said that while Rudman called the 1986 Gramm-Rudman law "a bad idea whose time has come," those words "sound familiar today" with the budget under sequester and no strong effort to address it.

Walker said it is unrealistic to believe that the federal deficit can be eliminated, but he said "what's important" is lowering the deficit as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.

He said the debt was 23 percent of GDP when Gramm-Rudman passed; it is now 40 percent.

"We don't have to pay down the national debt, but we must get it, as a percentage of GDP, down to a reasonable level and put ourselves on a path to keep it that way," Walker said.

He said that at the current pace of borrowing, "We're going to be paying $800 billion-plus just for interest in 10 years, for which we'll get nothing.

"We're in tough shape, but it's not hopeless," said Walker. "The people are ahead of the politicians."

He said they are willing to pay higher taxes "as long as they are part of a comprehensive plan that's deemed to be fair."

"The biggest deficit this country has is a leadership deficit, and it's bigger with Warren Rudman's passing," Walker said.


jdistaso@unionleader.com


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