Image: Xavier Becerra, Jeb Hensarling
J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, center, joined by Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., left, opens the first meeting of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, often called the "supercommittee", on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011.
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updated 9/8/2011 4:42:40 PM ET 2011-09-08T20:42:40

In an early show of optimism, Republicans and Democrats on a powerful committee charged with cutting deficits pledged Thursday to aim higher than their $1.2 trillion target, work to boost job creation and reassure an anxious nation that Congress can solve big problems.

Tax reform as well as cuts to benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare will be among the options considered, members of the so-called supercommittee emphasized, although no specific proposals were debated at an opening session than ran scarcely an hour.

While they readily acknowledged numerous obstacles to a deal, committee members said it was essential to try at a time the economy is weak, joblessness is high and the country gives every sign of intense frustration with its elected leaders.

Compromise "is the difference between a divided government that works for the country and a dysfunctional government that doesn't," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the last of a dozen members to speak.

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The panel, co-chaired by Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, lawmakers from opposite ends of the political spectrum hope to help broker a deal somewhere in the middle — on an issue where failure is the rule.

The committee, three members from each party in each house, faces a deadline of Nov. 23. Its most consequential sessions are expected to take place in closed door sessions that will give President Barack Obama and congressional leaders from both parties the opportunity to influence the outcome.

Ironically, the committee owes its existence to earlier failed attempts at sweeping deficit-cutting compromises, most recently an abortive negotiation between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Their talks collapsed over the summer, at a time Republicans were demanding deficit cuts in exchange for passage of legislation to raise the debt limit and prevent a first-ever government default.

In the end, the two sides agreed to increase the debt limit by enough to let the Treasury pay its bills through 2012 while also cutting $1 trillion over a decade from one category of government programs.

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It was a significant sum, but far less than the White House and some Republicans had been hoping for. Nor did it change the tax code or significantly affect Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, farm programs and other costly benefit programs than many lawmakers say must be part of any attempt to slow and ultimately reduce the nation's debt.

That is particularly true of Republicans, although Democrats are largely unwilling to go along unless their GOP counterparts will agree to higher revenues at the same time.

"I approach our task with a profound sense of urgency, high hopes, and realistic expectations," Hensarling said as he gaveled the session to order. He said the task "will not be easy, but it is essential," and said the panel "must be primarily about saving and reforming social safety net programs that are not only failing many beneficiaries but going broke at the same time."

A fellow Republican, Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, added another item to the agenda moments later, speaking of "wasteful tax subsidies" that should be eliminated and calling for changes that can turn the tax code into an engine for more economic growth.

"When huge, iconic American corporations can pay little or no income tax, well that's indefensible," he said. "So I think we ought to wipe out those special interest favors, have commensurately lower rates, encourage the economic growth that will generate more revenues, generate more jobs."

Among Democrats, Murray stressed the importance of compromise, saying that in meetings with constituents last month, they "asked why it was that every time they turn on their televisions, they hear about more political battling, more partisan rancor_but nothing more being done for people like them."

Story: The supercommittee on deficit reduction

She added pointedly that she was pleased that other members of the panel "have refrained from drawing in the sand or carving out areas that can't be touched" as part of any deal.

The committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing next week at which Douglas Elmendorf, head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget office, is expected to explain the forces that have driven the annual deficits into the $1 trillion-plus range, and left the country with a debt of $14 trillion.

The legislation that created the committee also approved a $400 billion debt limit increase, and permitted Obama to request yet another another $500 billion increase, with an option for Congress to block it. An attempt to do so was expected in the Senate Thursday evening.

If the committee fails to produce a 10-year package of cuts of at least $1.2 trillion, across-the-board spending cuts would take place that would and simultaneously allow the president to seek another increase in the federal debt limit of the same size.

On the other hand, any agreement on cuts totaling up to $1.5 trillion that are approved by both houses of Congress would permit Obama to request a dollar-for-dollar rise in the debt limit. There is no upper limit to the amount of deficit reductions the panel can recommend.

The committee proceedings were briefly interrupted by demonstrators who shouted "Jobs Now!" in a hallway outside the room. The group dispersed after police threatened them with arrest.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The debt supercommittee

  • This 12-member panel is tasked with finding $1.5 trillion more in debt savings. It has until Nov. 23 to propose ways to reduce deficits. Those proposals must be voted on by Dec. 23.

  • Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

    Image: Kyl
    Shawn Thew  /  EPA
    Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

    Kyl has served in Congress since 1987, with four terms in the House before winning his Senate seat in 1994. He’s retiring at the end of 2012. He has served as Senate Republican whip since 2007. Kyl has served on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee since 2001.

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    He has been an adept and dogged debater throughout his career, but draw scorn from Democrats when he said in April, “If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that's well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” The fact-checking site, Politifact said Kyl’s estimate was far off.

  • Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.

    Image: Toomey
    Jeff Fusco  /  Getty Images
    Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.

    Toomey worked on Wall Street in the 1980s and as a restaurateur in Allentown, Pa., then served in the House for three terms. In 2004, he challenged Sen. Arlen Specter, who was then a Republican, in a primary, losing by less than 2 percentage points.

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    After heading the anti-tax group Club for Growth, Toomey returned to Pennsylvania in 2010 and won the Senate nomination, Specter having left the Republican Party. Toomey won the general election by 2 percentage points over Democrat Joe Sestak, partly by attacking him for voting for the 2008 Wall Street bailout.

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    When he worked on Wall Street, Toomey told viewers in a campaign ad, “I learned that Wall Street is the last place that should ever get a taxpayer bailout.” He voted against the budget and debt ceiling deal negotiated by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, arguing, “Not only will our debt grow each year under this plan, it will continue to grow even as a percentage of our economy ... I am concerned that the long-term cuts over the next decade will not materialize.”

  • Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio

    Image: Portman
    Tim Sloan  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio

    Although a first-term senator, Portman has worked in Washington, on and off, since his days as a lawyer for an influential Washington lobbying firm in the 1980s and then as associate White House counsel and congressional liaison for President George H. W. Bush, starting in 1989. He served seven terms in the House, beginning in 1993, and then did stints under President George W. Bush as U.S. Trade Representative and as budget director.

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    In last fall’s election, Portman easily defeated an underfunded Democratic opponent, getting 57 percent of the vote – this in a state which Barack Obama had won in 2008 with 51 percent. He brings a deep knowledge of both politics and budget details to the committee.

  • Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash./Co-chair

    Image: Patty Murray
    J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
    Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

    Murray, as the self-described “mom in tennis shoes” and with scanty political experience, won her Senate seat in 1992 and has proven to be a durable politician and a skillful member of the chamber's Appropriations Committee.

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    Despite her re-election race last year being rated a tossup in late summer, she defeated Republican opponent Dino Rossi, winning 52 percent of the vote. Some reform groups have criticized her for serving on the deficit reduction committee while she is chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the fundraising and candidate recruiting arm of her party. But Murray’s response hearkens back to her “mom in tennis shoes” persona: "Multitasking is something every mom knows how to do."

  • Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

    Image: Baucus
    Robyn Beck  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

    Although rarely seen on television and not given to flamboyant speechmaking, Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is one of the most powerful people in Washington. His first job in Washington was in 1967 as an attorney for a now-defunct federal agency, the Civil Aeronautics Board. Baucus won a House seat in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal and was elected to the Senate in 1978.

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    Since 2001, with one interruption when Republicans were in control of the Senate, he has chaired the Finance Committee, playing decisive roles in writing the 2001 tax cuts into law and in designing last year’s health care overhaul.

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    Last year, he served on the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, but voted against its recommendations, such as raising the eligibility age for Social Security retirement benefits and raising the gasoline tax, which he said “would hurt people in states like Montana who often have to travel long distances.”

  • Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

    Image: John Kerry
    Mian Khursheed  /  REUTERS
    Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

    Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, Kerry brings the perspective of a party leader and a 26-year Senate veteran. He has served on the Senate Finance Committee for many years and was a strong advocate of President Obama’s health care overhaul. He tried last year to design climate change legislation in partnership with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., contrasting it with the health care bill. "Health care never, ever became bipartisan,” he said. But in end, Kerry’s effort couldn’t gain enough momentum.

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    He complained shortly before the 2010 elections that Republicans were creating “a period of know-nothing-ism in the country, where truth and science and facts don't weigh in. It's all short-order, lowest common denominator, cheap-seat politics.”

  • Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas/Co-Chair

    Image: Hensarling
    Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images
    Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas

    The Texan is probably the most conservative member of the joint committee. He opposed the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program which bailed out Wall Street firms, saying TARP was “a step down the slippery slope to socialism.”

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    In the 1990’s, he served as an aide to Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, helping run the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Last year, he served on the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, but voted against its recommendations which included tax increases (by phasing out deductions and credits) and reductions in entitlement spending. Explaining his “no” vote, Hensarling said, “If I believed that the increased revenue would actually be used for deficit reduction, you know, I might reluctantly come to the table ... .” But he said when he looked at Reagan’s agreeing to tax increases in 1982 and George H.W. Bush’s tax reversal in 1990, “It just seems to me that somehow the spending restraint never quite materializes, and yet the increased revenues do, and it seems like the increased revenues simply chase more spending.

  • Rep. David Camp, R-Mich.

    Image: Camp
    Harry Hamburg  /  AP file
    Rep. David Camp, R-Mich.

    Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, which writes tax law and runs the entitlement programs (Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid), Camp is a 21-year House veteran. Like many other members of Congress, Camp worked on the Hill as a staffer — in his case, as chief of staff in the 1980s for the Republican who once held the same seat he now holds.

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    Neither flashy, nor particularly charismatic, Camp is a wonkish, detail-oriented legislator. He voted for the 2008 financial sector bailout and the auto industry bailout, but is staunchly conservative on most issues. President Barack Obama carried his Michigan district with 50 percent of the vote in the 2008 election.

  • Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

    Image: Upton
    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
    Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

    Of the six Republicans serving on the committee, Upton is the only one who might be called "moderate" or who has occasionally deviated from the party line on a major issue (he opposed President Bush’s 2007 Iraq troop surge). After the 2010 election gave Republicans control of the House, some conservatives tried to block Upton from becoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

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    FreedomWorks, a group headed former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, assailed his votes to bail out the auto industry and financial firms. "He has consistently been one of the least fiscally conservative Republicans in the House," FreedomWorks Max Pappas told Congressional Quarterly. But Upton, an ally of Speaker John Boehner, prevailed. Like fellow committee member and fellow Michigander Dave Camp, Upton has been on Capitol Hill for decades, having won his seat in 1986. Before that, Upton worked as a staffer for Rep. David Stockman, and then went with Stockman when he became President Ronald Reagan’s budget director in 1981. Obama carried his district with 54 percent of the vote in the 2008 election, but Bush won it in 2004 with 53 percent.

  • Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C.

    Image: Clyburn
    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
    Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C.

    Clyburn, first elected to the House in 1992, served as Democratic whip when his party had the majority from 2007 to the end of 2010. He represents one of the nation’ poorest and most heavily Democratic congressional districts. After the 2010 GOP wave, Clyburn was left as the only Democrat in his state’s six-member congressional delegation.

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    Referring to the deficit and the national debt, Clyburn told a South Carolina newspaper just before his appointment to the deficit reduction committee, “Entitlements aren’t causing these problems. This is just blaming poor people ... when fat cats in the upper 2 percent (of Americans) are getting tax cuts.”

  • Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.

    Image: Beccerra
    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
    Rep. Xavier Beccerra, D-Calif.

    Elected in 1992, Becerra represents a district in Los Angeles which President Obama won in 2008 with 80 percent of the vote. He serves on the House Ways & Means Committee, and also served on the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, but voted against its recommendations, complaining that the deficit and debt had been created mostly by President Bush and Republicans in Congress.

    “We cut taxes for the wealthy in a time of war and recession and never paid for it,” he said. He also said, “We cannot balance the federal budget with 15 million Americans out of work.” And he contended that “short-term deficits, incurred for policies that promote economic recovery and investment, are not incompatible with responsible, long-term deficit reduction.”

  • Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

    Image: Van Hollen
    Manuel Balce Ceneta  /  AP
    Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

    Senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Van Hollen is perhaps the House Democrats’ most ubiquitous spokesman on national television, rarely missing a chance to do battle with Republicans. He chaired his party’s House campaign committee — in both good times for Democrats (2008) and during the 2010 election debacle.

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    He opposes short-term deficit reduction, saying, “This focus on the near term on just cutting, cutting, cutting is actually the opposite course that we should take. We need a long term plan to reduce the deficit. But in the short term it is counterproductive to make these deep cuts.”

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