WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington's outgunned deficit hawks huddled Wednesday for their annual pep rally, but this year's gathering came as lawmakers and the White House have given up any pretense of tackling the country's budget woes in the run-up to November's midterm elections.
The annual "fiscal summit" was held just blocks from the Capitol, where the Senate was debating a measure extending tax breaks for a variety of special interests for another two years at a cost of $85 billion.
This year's summit also occurred as Democrats and Republicans were taking a break from battling over the budget after a tumultuous 2013. Last fall's government shutdown and subsequent small-scale budget deal and increase in the debt limit have combined to take away any pressure for a budget deal this year. It also came as deficits — while still large — have tumbled sharply from the $1 billion-plus deficits of President Barack Obama's first term.
The gathering attracted top Washington talent like Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, former President Bill Clinton and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The marquee attraction, however, was an out-of-towner: New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie, a top prospect for his party's presidential nomination in 2016. When asked by CBS' Bob Schieffer if he's thinking of running for president and when he'll make a decision, Christie said, "Yes, and later."
The summit is hosted by Pete Peterson, who has staked $1 billion of his Wall Street fortune on a foundation bearing his name that is dedicated to educating the public on the perils of the deficit. The gatherings tend to chew over the same ground, year after year, as participants lament lost opportunities to wrestle the deficits under control and look ahead to future ones.
"Am I more optimistic? No, I'm more concerned," said former Clinton Chief of staff Erskine Bowles, chairman of Obama's 2010 deficit commission. He also said that he can't see any tough political decisions on the budget being made until after the 2016 election. "Nothing substantive will happen until 2017," Bowles said.
The deficit hawk crowd lacks the political firepower of the powerful protectors of Social Security and Medicare, like the AARP, or the clout of anti-tax groups on the other side of the spectrum.
Portman, who recalled his 2011 tenure on the "not so super" committee, said that there may be a six-month window for action next year, especially if Republicans retake the Senate. But he said Obama is not serious about the deficit and has removed a proposal for curbing Social Security cost-of-living increases from his budget.
"We're not headed in the right direction," Portman said.
Clinton meandered on for an hour under questioning by PBS's Gwen Ifill, avoiding much talk of the deficit. Instead, he addressed income inequality, immigration reform, and foreign policy.
Ifill even asked Clinton about GOP strategist Karl Rove's observation that Hillary Clinton may have suffered a brain injury in a fall in December 2012.
"First they say she faked her concussion and now say she's auditioning for a part on 'The Walking Dead,' " Clinton replied.
Clinton also said that Democrats shouldn't shy away from the Affordable Care Act in the upcoming midterms.
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