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Published January 28 2010

Forum editorial: Fifty-three votes not enough this time

The failure of the U.S. Senate to back a special commission suggests the will to tackle the nation’s budget deficit has been derailed by special interests on the left and right. The commission won a bipartisan Senate majority on Tuesday (53-46), but needed 60 votes to pass. Thirty-six Democrats were joined by 16 Republicans and an independent in the majority.

The commission is the brainchild of Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and committee ranking member Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. They’ve worked together for months to develop the commission concept, which is modeled in part on the successful Military Base Closure Commission. That panel was created in order to get above the politics of reducing excess capacity in the nation’s military establishment. It worked.

The budget deficit commission would function in a similar fashion: make recommendations that would not be subject to amendment and would be voted up or down.

It’s an idea with obvious merit, but it still has to overcome senators on the far right and far left. They are putting short-term partisan priorities ahead of the national welfare.

The right is not interested in giving the Obama administration any effective tool that might address the economic mess and the deficit. That crowd’s only aim is to undermine the president, even if at the expense of the nation.

The lefties in the Senate have no interest in curbing spending on their pet projects. Their constituencies depend on federal largess. Furthermore, they seem to believe that every problem can be solved by throwing more federal money at it.

Both extremes are flawed and counterproductive. Both extremes are more about politics and patronage than economics and fiscal discipline.

Conrad and Gregg, who come from different political traditions, recognize the seriousness of the nation’s unsustainable deficits. They have put partisanship aside to develop a mechanism to begin a fix. What they have in mind is sound because a statutory commission would have the power to make unpopular cuts in federal spending. That’s what it will take to right the nation’s listing economic ship.

Conrad and Gregg are not newcomers to warning about deficits and debt. Conrad in particular has for years been using his famous charts to illustrate the dangerous trends. His presentations in the Senate and with editorial boards at North Dakota newspapers have been consistent and prescient for a long time. That he and Gregg were able get a bipartisan majority to back their commission is hopeful news. They should keep at it because it’s clear Congress, left to its own devices, hasn’t got the will to make the tough decisions.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.