Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

New Panel Tackles Benefits Commission Must `Take Chances,' Senator Says

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

New Panel Tackles Benefits Commission Must `Take Chances,' Senator Says

Article excerpt

The Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform held its first meeting Monday, with brave talk and nervous asides about whether the commission - or the country - is ready for realism on federal benefits and the taxes that fund them.

Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wy., said you could hear lobbyists for older adults "cackling in the hall," poised to beat back the slightest cut in Social Security.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was reminded of the flowery speeches that began last year's commission on the reform of Congress, a commission on which he also served. Those hopes have turned to dust, he said: The Senate has gutted its version, and the House hasn't acted at all.

"Unless we cinch up our belts and take chances, this could be a real flop, too," he told his colleagues on the new commission.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., a former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said the pressures would soon get worse, with Congress considering a raft of new or expanded entitlements that range from railroad retirement and school lunches to welfare, crop insurance and the new health care legislation.

"It's not just a case of fiddling while Rome burns," he said. "We have become the entire string section."

Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., the commission's vice chair, conceded that tackling entitlements was a high-risk affair: "It is the third rail of American politics," he said. "You touch it and you're dead."

The 32-member commission includes 11 senators, 10 House members and representatives from the private sector. Its chairman, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., won President Bill Clinton's support for the commission after casting the decisive vote last August for Clinton's budget.

Whether the administration is prepared to expend any political capital on entitlement reform, in the midst of the health care debate, remains to be seen.

Robert E. …

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