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Murkowski delivers centrist message on debt

Patti Epler

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is continuing down the center lane of the political highway she embarked on a year ago when she won a historic write-in campaign by appealing to moderate Republicans, more conservative Democrats and Alaska's huge number of independent voters.

On Tuesday, the Alaska Republican spoke to the lunch gathering of Commonwealth North in a speech that strove to weave a path through the political minefield that promises to trip up congressional leaders as they grapple with the nation's staggering debt and debilitating budget cuts.

"It is really hard back there right now and it's getting tougher every day," Murkowski said.

She is urging a comprehensive approach that puts the country, not political ideology, first. She says people need to keep an open mind about the total package that may be proposed by a congressional "super committee" later this year, and not cling to the programs or policies that suit them personally.

In passing an increase in the national debt limit earlier this month, Congress agreed to give a 12-member committee -- six Democrats and six Republicans -- a chance to reduce debt by about $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years. That means equal cuts in areas that have been mostly off limits politically -- defense spending and non-defense programs such as Social Security and Medicare. And it could mean tax increases, another area that Republicans have steadfastly blocked.

But Murkowski says she is open to tax increases and definitely wants to see tax reform that is fair and would also simplify the tax system to the point that most people would be able to understand it and even prepare their own tax returns. The current system is so convoluted and confusing that, Murkowski said, even she and her husband can't do it themselves.

"I believe that we must have tax reform as part of the cafeteria of choices," she said.

Murkowski pointed to a recent media column by Warren Buffett, one of the country's richest men, who advocated increasing taxes on the "mega rich." But, she said, there needs to be a clear definition of who is in that category and not just tack it to an arbitrary income level like $250,000 a year, a cutoff that could include small business owners who are providing jobs and building the economy.

Murkowski is worried that defense spending cuts could be tough on Alaska but said it's too early yet to see where specific cuts might come in. She envisions a process where the super committee might ask standing committees to come up with detailed proposals. If the super committee falls apart, the cuts will be made by appropriations committees; Murkowski is a member of Senate Appropriations.

For Democrats who are zealously protecting "entitlement" programs like Medicare and Social Security, Murkowski had this message: Get over it. There will need to be some changes made if the programs are going to remain stable over the long term, she said.

That might mean increasing the Medicare eligibility age to 67, the age that Social Security kicks in now for many people, she said.

Murkowski also believes that much work has already been done on the budget and spending cut issues by previous commissions. So it should be possible for Congress to come up with a plan by Thanksgiving, as has been talked about.

But the most important thing, she said, is to set political bickering aside, keep open minds and come up with something that works.

"This is about the survival of the economic future of this country," Murkowski said. "So let's figure it out."

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com