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Originally published December 7, 2012 at 7:55 PM | Page modified December 8, 2012 at 11:13 AM

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Debt panel co-chairman presses for budget deal in Microsoft talk

About 700 employees at Microsoft's Redmond campus gathered Friday to hear from a major figure in the debt debate: Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

Seattle Times political reporter

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Microsoft is joining other major corporate players in pressuring Congress to reach a compromise debt-reduction deal to avert an end of the year fiscal cliff of automatic spending cuts and tax increases.

About 700 employees at Microsoft's Redmond campus gathered Friday to hear from a major figure in the debt debate: Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

Bowles warned the U.S. faces "the most predictable economic crisis in history" if politicians fail to reach a deal that starts to reduce the nation's $16 trillion debt.

Citing skyrocketing health-care spending, enormous military budgets and an exemption-riddled tax code, Bowles said the eventual solution must include tax increases and spending cuts that will be difficult for Democrats and Republicans alike.

"The problem is real. The solutions are going to be painful. There is no easy way out," Bowles told the Microsoft workers who attended the talk sponsored by the company's political action committee.

Bowles, a North Carolina Democrat who served as White House chief of staff under former President Clinton, was co-chairman of the 2010 presidential debt commission with former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.

The Simpson-Bowles panel's ideas have been cited by many as a potential blueprint for a debt-cutting deal. But the specifics — including cuts to entitlements and military spending and tax increases on the wealthy and middle class — have proved difficult for Congress to embrace, even as the crucial end-of-the-year deadline approaches.

If no deal is reached by Dec. 31, the country faces the so-called fiscal cliff — including expiration of all the Bush-era tax cuts and massive across-the-board cuts to federal agencies.

Bowles and Simpson have stayed in the center of the fiscal-cliff debate in recent weeks, touring the country to promote the Campaign to Fix the Debt, an organization they founded with business and political leaders to promote a bipartisan compromise on the debt.

Microsoft has signed on to that campaign, along with dozens of other major corporations. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Boeing CEO Jim McNerney are on the campaign's CEO council.

At Friday's talk, Microsoft employees were urged to support the Fix the Debt effort and nudge lawmakers toward a debt deal.

"We're not trying to answer every specific question. We are trying to draw attention to the need for both sides to come together and make big compromises because that's what it will take to get things done," Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, said in an interview.

The Fix the Debt campaign has been criticized by labor groups who see the participation by Microsoft and other corporations as merely an effort to protect their bottom lines.

In a newspaper op-ed this month, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, attacked the corporate effort as a "shadow group" out to protect the interests of big business.

Trumka noted that many of the companies would benefit from one Simpson-Bowles proposal that would shield overseas profits from U.S. taxes.

A report for a U.S. Senate committee this fall found Microsoft has avoided paying at least $6.5 billion in U.S. taxes over three years by parking some profits overseas.

Although legal, such maneuvers have drawn criticism as the debate over how to pay down the national debt has intensified.

Bowles said that despite the public posturing in Washington, D.C., the contours of a deal may be emerging between President Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

"I think the Kabuki theater is over now, and they're starting to tango," Bowles said.

Yet, the public bickering continued Friday, as Boehner announced there has been no progress in negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff and called on Obama to produce a new offer.

Hours later, Vice President Joe Biden repeated the White House's terms: raise the top two tax rates paid by upper-income earners and give the president authority to raise the government's borrowing cap without the approval of Congress.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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