AUGUSTA, Maine — Two former political rivals who ran against each other for Congress in 1994 are joining a national, bipartisan effort inspired by the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission that aims to put pressure on lawmakers to bring the nation’s $16.2 trillion debt under control.
Former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, and former state Senate President Rick Bennett, a Republican, said Thursday they have joined the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a group that’s urging lawmakers to address the nation’s $16 trillion debt and take action to prevent the “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year. That’s when tax cuts from President George W. Bush’s administration and temporary payroll tax cuts are set to expire, and a first wave of $1.2 trillion in federal budget cuts — including defense reductions that could affect thousands of jobs in Maine — take effect.
Maine is one of 10 states where the Campaign to Fix the Debt is launching state chapters, Bennett said. In the short-term, the campaign will form a steering committee of business and community leaders and host town hall meetings across the state to raise awareness about the debt, and hear from residents about their debt-related concerns.
“Regardless of who gets elected, we are going to try to drive interest in and attention to this issue,” Bennett said in an interview. “It doesn’t have anything to do with promoting candidates or any points of view. Whoever’s elected needs to embrace this problem and tackle it and engage proactively in solving it.”
The Campaign to Fix the Debt is an effort founded by Republican Alan Simpson, a former Wyoming senator, and Democrat Erskine Bowles, who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. The pair led President Barack Obama’s deficit reduction commission, and turned out a proposal that included a combination of spending cuts and tax revenue increases as part of a long-term debt reduction plan.
Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, and former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a Republican, are co-chairmen of the initiative.
Bloomberg reported earlier this month that the campaign has raised $30 million to spend on advertising and grass-roots campaigning designed to pressure lawmakers to agree to a debt deal.
“I think it’s clear that John Baldacci and I are supporting different candidates for president,” Bennett said. “This is a national problem. It’s not a Republican problem, it’s not a Democratic problem. It’s been contributed to by everybody in office. It needs to be solved by everybody in office.”
Baldacci and Bennett faced each other when both were vying to represent Maine’s 2nd District in Congress. Baldacci won that election and served four terms in the U.S. House. He served as governor from 2003 to 2011 and now works at the Portland law firm Pierce Atwood.
Bennett, who has long been active in Republican politics, has served in the Maine House and the Maine Senate, including a term he served as Senate president along with Maine’s current 2nd District representative, Democrat Mike Michaud. In June, Bennett finished third in the six-way Republican U.S. Senate primary, which was won by Secretary of State Charlie Summers.
While Baldacci and Bennett aren’t planning a political effort in Maine that involves endorsements, Simpson and Bowles’ plan has become a hot topic of discussion this election season, including in Maine’s U.S. Senate race and the presidential race.
Independent U.S. Senate candidate Angus King received Bowles’ endorsement in September, when the two men hosted a town hall event at the University of Southern Maine focused on the national debt.
In addition, Simpson and Bowles have given their backing to a handful of other candidates who have expressed support for their debt deal, which was soundly rejected in the U.S. House and was never voted on in the Senate. The plan proposed a range of cuts to social welfare programs that were opposed by Democrats. Republicans largely opposed the plan’s proposal to end certain tax breaks.
Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Simpson and Bowles have backed Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Bass of New Hampshire and Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Bennett said the Simpson-Bowles plan was a “good first start” toward solving the nation’s debt problem. A major reform of the tax code that results in some revenue increases — not tax increases — is part of that equation, he said.
“I think it was a shame that our political leaders just kind of shelved it and ignored it,” Bennett said of the Simpson-Bowles plan. “It seems like we’re always waiting for the next election to occur before anyone’s serious about dealing with this.”
The Campaign to Fix the Debt has significant support from the business sector. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the CEOs of more than 80 major businesses — including health insurer Aetna, AT&T, Boeing, Marriott and dozens of others — have signed on in support.