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A time to govern
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WASHINGTON -- New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg could reel off a list of problems with the debt-reduction blueprint produced by the president's fiscal responsibility commission -- beginning with the fact that, as Gregg sees it, the plan doesn't do nearly enough to reduce the debt: By 2020, in the unlikely event that all the recommendations are enacted, the debt would still stand at an unhealthy share of gross domestic product, between 60 percent and 70 percent. 

But Gregg, the ranking -- and, in a few weeks, departing -- member of the Senate Budget Committee, announced that he will vote in favor of the plan for a simple, and patriotic, reason. "In the end, today, we've reached a point where it's time to govern," he told his fellow commission members Wednesday. "It's that simple. We either as a nation govern or we risk losing our greatness, and this is a template for beginning that governance."

Bravo! Governing means compromising. The art of the possible is rarely a masterpiece. Sometimes principles require opposition, but in the current climate, rigid adherence to dogma too often takes precedence over the need to forge admittedly imperfect solutions. In both parties, there are too few Greggs, and too many of them -- Gregg himself, along with GOP colleagues Robert Bennett of Utah and George Voinovich of Ohio -- are leaving public office.

Could the deficit commission be a moment for more lawmakers to summon their inner Greggs? The cynic in me is doubtful. The knee-jerk Republican reflex is to oppose any tax increase, for any reason -- even though increased revenue must be part of any deficit-reduction package. The Democratic instinct, equally strong, is to oppose any cuts to Social Security. The lessons of the 2010 election are chastening to the politician flirting with compromise or even fraternization. 

And yet: Watching the proceedings, I spied green shoots of hope. There was Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a liberal Democrat and assistant majority leader, taking the plunge on raising the Social Security retirement age.

"I'm going to say something now that is heretical on the left, and they won't like me for saying it, but what you have suggested in increasing the Social Security retirement age is acceptable to me," Durbin said. "To raise it one year over 40 years is hardly radical. To raise it two years over 65 years is not radical. And providing, as you have for two things, those in manual labor who need to retire at an earlier age because they're worn out and can't continue working, and to provide extra help for those older people on Social Security who need a helping hand more than others. These things are sensible, and we've got to accept sensible alternatives to move forward on the left and on the right."

There was Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, about as conservative as Republicans come, who said, "I have heartaches with tons of it. But I know we have to go forward. ... And so my questions really come down is, will we come together and put something out, even though probably 50 percent of it I'm not happy with, as a down payment to make a statement that says this problem is so real, Tom Coburn can't have what he wants? And I can't." On Thursday, Coburn and fellow-Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho both announced they would vote for the plan.

I'm – gulp -- with Coburn. I have heartache, too, no doubt with the 50 percent that Coburn likes. The spending cuts are too draconian; an aging society will require more spending than the plan envisions. The tax plan is a major step in the right direction but does not raise enough revenue; I'd go for a value-added tax as well. I worry about whether more stimulus is needed in the short term -- the payroll tax holiday proposed by the Bipartisan Policy Center is worth exploring -- and about the potentially negative impact on the economy of cutting too much spending too soon. I worry about the ultimate impact on Social Security recipients -- not the poorest, but those in the middle.

But the question on the merits of the plan is: Compared to what? The status quo is not simply unacceptable, it is dangerous. As commission member Alice Rivlin pointed out, protecting the poor and the vulnerable includes worrying about "what happens to them if we have another economic catastrophe." And this is why Gregg's bottom line -- that, in the end, it's time to govern -- resonates so powerfully.