Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson, who chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee, predicted Thursday that the debate coming this fall on raising the debt ceiling will spark a bipartisan compromise he's been working on for years.
Because two-thirds of federal spending is on autopilot - Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and debt service - Simpson said cuts in discretionary spending have become significant enough to convince a majority to agree to a deal.
For example, Simpson said, the U.S. Forest Service, whose budget he oversees, now proposes spending 70 percent of its budget on fires and 30 percent on land management. That's a reversal of the historic ratio.
"They boosted the firefighting costs in this budget and reduced things like hazardous fuels reduction, which is crazy," the eight-term lawmaker told the Statesman editorial board. "We're getting down to where it's going to hit some very ugly stuff."
The budget Simpson's committee writes for the Interior Department and related agencies has dropped from $32 billion two years ago to $29 billion. It will likely be cut to $25 or $26 billion in fiscal 2014, he said.
As Congress considers more cuts borne by one-third of the budget, the pressure will build for a deal that includes long-term cuts in entitlement spending along with revenue increases, Simpson argued.
"As we do that more and more, people are going to come to the realization that we've got to have a grand bargain, we've got to fix this," Simpson said.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, agrees with Simpson that debt is the nation's biggest problem and "desperately" wants a solution.
"Our numbers are no different than Greece, except we've got a higher limit on our credit card," Risch said.
But Risch foresees more patching and scratching, delaying any "grand bargain."
"Boy, I don't hear it," Risch told the editorial board in a separate meeting, saying Congress has been focused on gun rights and immigration. "I think there needs to be substantially more pressure. ... There will be some progress. I think it will be incremental, I don't think you're going to see the big deal."
Simpson, who has partnered with House Assistant Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland in leading the "Go Big" coalition, remains optimistic. He predicted a majority of House Republicans will support a compromise with Democrats, knowing that both sides will infuriate some of their most loyal supporters.
"I'm willing to take one or two ugly votes that might cost me my election," Simpson said.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics