SALT LAKE CITY -- The biggest obstacle to fixing the federal deficit isn't the money but the partisan divide and lack of civility in politics, the co-chairman of President Barack Obama's debt commission said Friday.
"If we're not Americans first instead of Republicans and Democrats, we won't get out of this hole," former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, told a crowd of bankers, politicians and business executives during a luncheon that was hosted by Salt Lake City-based Zions Bank.
Simpson continually returned to that message during the half-hour speech and directed criticism at both parties. Instead of looking for solutions, he said, most politicians are searching for somebody to blame so they don't have to shoulder the burden of cuts themselves.
But the deficit will not be fixed with simple ideologies, he said.
"You can't tax your way out of this, and you can't cut your way out of it, unless you cripple the government," Simpson said.
Instead, Congress must tackle the entire federal budget, including defense spending, Social Security and Medicare, he said, adding that taxes will need to be increased, entitlement programs will need to be cut and discretionary spending will have to be reduced significantly.
Doing those things will require cutting spending on important voting blocs, especially senior citizens. But Simpson said going against the American Association of Retired People will be incredibly difficult, as lawmakers' reluctance to tackle Social Security proves.
"If they can't restore solvency to Social Security -- the easiest thing in the whole package -- if they can't do that, they can't do anything at all," he said.
There are reasons to be optimistic, because Obama and House Republicans have plans that cut $4 trillion, reform taxes and attack entitlement programs, Simpson said.
As for the actual threat to America because of the national debt, Simpson said it was impossible to predict when the country might face bankruptcy along the lines of Greece or Ireland.