Transcript: Simpson-Bowles on the White House’s engagement to strike a “grand bargain” to reduce the deficit

Transcript of excerpts from the Politico Playbook Breakfast with Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, on sequestration and deficit reduction. The event was held on Feb. 19, 2013 and moderated by Mike Allen, Politico’s White House correspondent.

Mike Allen:
Sen. Simpson, when was the last time you talked to President Obama?

Alan Simpson:
Well, I know Erskine’s certainly close by and he goes up and he checks with me after they have their conversation. I think personally I talk with Joe Biden on the phone. I’ve known Joe for 40 years. Great pal. Don’t always agree but a good man. And I love him. But as personally, I suppose a year and a half or something since I’ve personally talked to the President. But Erskine has that ability to do it close by and he checks with me.

Mike Allen:
When was the last time you talked to the President?

Erskine Bowles:
Before the election. Right before the election. I’ve talked to Vice President Biden since the election and I’ve talked to members of the White House team constantly, you know, whether it’s been Jack Lew or Gene Sperling or…

Mike Allen:
It’s pretty remarkable that you’ve not talked to the President since the election. Why is that?

Erskine Bowles:
I don’t think it’s remarkable having worked in the White House. These guys have got a lot on their plate. This is one of the things on their plate. But they’ve got plenty to do.

Mike Allen:
If Joe Biden were President, would we have had a grand bargain?

Erskine Bowles:
Who know? You know, had Bill Clinton been the President would we have had a grand bargain? What I know is we need a grand bargain and to get a grand bargain both sides are going to move out of their comfort zone.

Mike Allen:
Sen. Simpson, I think there’s assumption among the editorial pages of America, assumption among a lot of reporters, that when President Obama gets the opportunity to do the right thing on entitlements that he will – that he would be willing to make his party do tough things. But we don’t know that for sure. How confident are you that this President would do the right thing on entitlements if he has the chance?

Alan Simpson:
Well, I think that he ran for re-election – he shared with us that he knew exactly what we were doing and that he intended to do it – incrementally, perhaps.

Mike Allen:
Yeah, but why wait?

Alan Simpson:
…So he knows what to do and if he doesn’t get a handle on the entitlements and the solvency of Social Security he will have a failed presidency. And if he wants to have a legacy of the new FDR – the second whatever – whatever that is that drives him, that’s fine with me. But he will have a failed presidency unless he deals honestly with the entitlements program without cutting, you know, the poor and the wretched and all the rest and all this stuff and getting solvency for Social Security. Then the scorecard in years to come was he failed. I don’t think he wants that at all. He’s too smart.

Erskine Bowles:
Look, I think the President’s going to have to make these really tough cuts in health care spending. I think he’s going to have to take the action to make Social Security sustainably solvent. I think he’s going to have to make additional cuts in the defense and non-defense budgets. And I think he’s going to have to make those tough decisions. But I think to Republicans in the House of Representatives are also going to have to make a tough decision and that is we do have to reform the tax code, which everybody wants us to do, but also we’re going to have to use a small percentage of that money to reduce the deficit so it doesn’t place too much burden on the operating structure of the country.

Mike Allen:
Well, who’s the one person in the White House and one person in the Republican leadership who’s most authentically committed to making these tough choices?

Erskine Bowles:
I think the one person in the White House who’s most authentically committed to making these choices is the President. I met with him several times. I believe that he’s willing to make these cuts in entitlement programs that we have to make. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to continue to push him outside of his comfort zone to go a little further than he might want to go otherwise. But I think we’re going to have to push him if we’re going to get a deal with Republicans. And I think we’re going to have to push the Republicans in order to do the tax reform that allows us to reduce the deficit in the same manner.

Mike Allen:
And you’ve been in the West Wing. How do you push a President?

Erskine Bowles:
You know, the way I’ve done it is always be candidly open with him, not just agree but tell him exactly what you think and why. And this is a smart guy. I think he’ll understand it. I think he’ll make the right decisions at the end of the day.

Alan Simpson:
Or he could turn Joe Biden loose on him. [Laughter] Because he came to the Senate when Joe was there as a senior member and Joe took him under his wing and he listens to Joe as he would a colleague – a senior colleague. And Joe, you noticed, has always pulled out of the hat – the rabbit in the hat to do something and that’s what the role Joe will have. But Joe has a remarkable ability to communicate with him…

Joe has his ear…and can say, “If you’re going to do something, do this” or “Clean out the room. Get rid of the political guys” and say “Let’s do some policy now. Let’s do something for America.” That political guys hopefully have all gone home now and they were there for a purpose and it worked. Get him re-elected and then we’ll work out the details later. Well, they’re gone…and so maybe – just maybe – they’ll sit down and do policy for the best interests of the country without the howling, shrieking…using emotion, fear, guilt, and racism to beat your brains in.

Mike Allen:
How optimistic are you that that will occur this year?

Alan Simpson:
Well, you’d want to hope so. I mean, especially young people like you…I don’t know when it will happen but it will happen in his 4 years or he has no legacy at all. If he can’t cut the mustard with solvency of Social Security under honest appraisals of the trustees and he can’t get a handle on an automatic pilot rate of health care, he will have a failed presidency.

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