PORTLAND, Maine — Federal debt commission co-chairman Erskine Bowles told a Portland audience Sunday that independent U.S. Senate candidate and former Maine Gov. Angus King would bring to Congress the political will to cut spending and close tax loopholes in order to reduce the national deficit.

The campaign of Republican Charlie Summers, who has been polling a distant second in the Senate race behind King, issued a statement Sunday afternoon criticizing King’s financial strategies as governor and describing the independent as the wrong candidate to attack the federal debt.

Bowles, a Democrat who worked as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, said he has been promoting in Congress the debt-lowering plan he co-authored in 2010 with Republican commission co-chairman Alan Simpson. He said he now has garnered support from 47 senators across both parties behind the scenes and hopes legislation implementing parts of the strategy can be adopted in the upcoming session.

But he acknowledged that the plan, which would reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years, would be tough for politicians to publicly support. Many Democrats have argued against the cuts to social welfare programs — the plan proposes $3 trillion in spending cuts — while many Republicans have argued against the $1 trillion in increases in tax revenues through the elimination of numerous tax breaks.

“I could use a bridge like this guy who could go between the parties,” Bowles said of King. “It would make such a difference.”

Bowles rejected the notion that, while King would not be beholden to partisan politics, he could be isolated and ineffective as an unenrolled independent in the Senate.

“I wish North Carolina had an independent senator,” he said. “He’ll have more power than anybody else. It’ll be close to 50-50 in terms of political control [of Congress], and all the guys in the middle — and he’ll be one of them — will have all the power. I think this one guy can make a big, big difference.”

King is widely seen as the front-runner in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe. His opponents are Democrat Cynthia Dill, Republican Summers and independents Steve Woods, Danny Dalton and Andrew Ian Dodge.

The Summers campaign on Sunday afternoon quickly issued a reaction to King’s appearance alongside Bowles, trumpeting a nearly $1 billion budget gap in the state government left when King’s second gubernatorial term ended.

“Despite campaigning for governor on the promise to rein in government spending, Angus King left office — and the state of Maine — with a $1 billion dollar budget shortfall for his successor to deal with,” Drew Brandewie, spokesman for Summers, said in a statement. “For Angus to sit alongside Erskine Bowles and masquerade as being tough on the national debt is the height of hypocrisy — just ask Gov. Baldacci.”

Republican groups have been aggressive in questioning King’s record as governor in the campaign thus far, with the Summers-backing U.S. Chamber of Commerce launching a $400,000 ad campaign in which race leader is called the “King of Spending” and Summers himself releasing a video blasting King’s stance against negative advertising as “hypocritical.”

King and his supporters have responded by saying increases in state spending during his tenure in the Blaine House are signs he took advantage of a strong economy for much-needed and overdue infrastructure and business development investments that have since benefited Maine.

King has noted that he encountered a budget deficit when he took office and that he cut nearly 1,200 state jobs — adding up to around $45 million in payroll and benefits — early in his tenure as part of his response.

Sunday’s town hall discussion took place at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus and was organized by the King campaign. Fellow independent and former Maine gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Cutler moderated the event.

Along with former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson from Wyoming, Bowles, former University of North Carolina president, served as co-chairman of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, formed in 2010 by President Barack Obama to develop a federal deficit reduction plan.

The resultant 64-page document — which closed nearly all federal tax loopholes to drive up revenues while cutting back about $200 million each year in discretionary spending — is now being converted into more than 650 pages of proposed legislation for the upcoming session, Bowles said.

Bowles said that while the steps included in the plan will be hard to stomach politically, the country is in danger of becoming “a second-rate power” if big changes aren’t made.

“Do not let any politician, Republican, Democrat or independent, tell you we can grow our way out of this problem,” Bowles said. “Don’t let any Democrat tell you we can tax our way out of this problem. And as much as I’d like to tell you, as a fiscal conservative, we can cut our way out of this problem, we can’t.”

Bowles listed what he sees as the five biggest threats to the country’s economic stability: The cost of health care, which he said takes up 25 percent of the federal budget, an amount twice that being spent by “any other developed country;” defense spending, which at more than $600 billion annually is more than the next 15 largest countries combined; an “ineffective, inefficient tax code” that’s difficult to follow or enforce; Social Security, which he called “$600 billion tax negative over the next decade;” and “the reality of compound interest,” which adds up to $250 billion in federal spending each year.

King said if he’s elected, he’ll be willing to weather the backlash which would come along with supporting a debt reduction strategy like the Simpson-Bowles plan.

“The problem is of such a magnitude that solving it is impossible without some real strain almost everywhere,” King told the Bangor Daily News before the Sunday event. “If we were talking about borrowing five cents out of every dollar we spend that would be one thing. But we’re talking about borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar we spend, and so resolving that issue is just going to be really tough. There’s just no question that this fits into the category of ‘Sometimes you’ve just got to do the right thing,’ and understand that people aren’t going to be happy about it.

“I believe that the people understand that this is a problem that has to be dealt with now, and we just can’t keep putting it off,” he continued. “Every day we put it off, it gets harder to solve.”

King naturally echoed Bowles’ sentiment that an independent could be crucial to ushering a potentially unpopular deficit reduction plan to passage.

“I think the first thing you do is find kindred spirits, and there are some,” King said. “I think there are definitely [moderate] people in Congress, and if you woke them up in the middle of the night without their party labels on, there would be a majority who would know we’ve got to do this. It’s just a question of trying to be a catalyst. If the Democrats say, ‘Oh, we can’t have these serious cuts,’ and the Republicans say, ‘We can’t have any new revenues,’ somebody’s got to stand up and say, ‘Come on, folks, there’s only one way to solve this, and everybody knows it — let’s get it done and move on.’”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.