Obama launches White House-based deficit-reduction panel without help from Congress

President Barack Obama signed an order Thursday unilaterally creating a bipartisan commission to rein in unruly deficits after Congress rejected a similar body with considerably more enforcement power.

In making the announcement, Obama said that unless lawmakers put aside partisan differences, the continuing red-ink trend could “hobble our economy.”

The federal deficit hit a record $1.4 trillion last year and could grow larger this year as the struggling economy puts a big dent in tax collections.

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“It will cloud our future and it will saddle every child in America with an intolerable burden,” he said before signing an executive order establishing the commission.

Obama signed the executive order a few hours before flying to Colorado and Nevada to help incumbent Democrats save their seats in the Senate. He’ll appear in Nevada for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. Like Obama and other Democrats, Reid has been feeling the sting of the stunning electoral upset by Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts election to choose a successor for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

At the White House event, Obama was flanked by Vice President Joe Biden along with former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senate Whip Alan Simpson. He chose Bowles and Simpson to lead the panel, which will be charged with reporting back by the end of this year on what steps Congress and the administration should take to get the deficit down to 3 percent of the gross domestic product, a level that economists believe is manageable.

Last year’s deficit equaled 9.9 percent of GDP, the highest point since World War II, and is projected to climb to 10.6 percent of GDP this year.

Obama said “everything is on the table” as the 18-member panel gets to work. In addition to Bowles and Simpson, Obama will appoint four members to the panel. Republican and Democratic leaders will each appoint six additional members. Obama said the panel’s recommendations will require approval by 14 of the 18 members, assuring that the recommendations will have bipartisan support.

But the executive commission is a weak substitute for what the president really wanted: a panel created by Congress that could force lawmakers to consider unpopular remedies to reduce the debt, including curbing politically sensitive entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

That bipartisan panel would have delivered lawmakers a deficit reduction blueprint after the November elections that would have been subject to votes before a new Congress convenes next year. But the idea faltered in the Senate, defeated by equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, including some of whom initially supported the idea.

Though Obama’s commission will lack any requirement for Congress to act on its advice, it could provide the president some political cover with an electorate that is increasingly concerned about the massive deficit. And that has some Republicans looking to paint the executive commission as little more than a political calculation.

“Since the president has unfairly given Democrats and liberals an over-representation on the commission, the odds are high that its recommendations will be heavy on tax increases and light on spending reductions,” Georgia Rep. Tom Price said in a statement.

Still, the panel has some big-name bipartisan backing.

Bowles, the president of the University of North Carolina, served as Democratic President Bill Clinton‘s chief of staff from 1996 to 1998. Simpson, a senator from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997, was the No. 2 Republican and the top GOP member of the Social Security subcommittee.

The nation’s huge deficits are being caused by the impact of a severe recession, which has trimmed the government’s tax receipts and raised spending on such programs as unemployment insurance and food stamps. The deficits also reflect the billions of dollars being spent from the $862 billion stimulus program passed in February 2009 and the $700 billion financial bailout program Congress passed in October 2008 to stabilize the banking system.

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