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Congressional debt reduction panel kicks off work

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and Rep. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who are the co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and Rep. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who are the co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the "supercommittee," shake hands at the end of the committee's first organizational meeting today on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Susan Walsh / AP)

WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats on the special supercommittee warned of a financial crisis threatening future generations as the congressional debt reduction panel kicked off its work today with an imperative to slash the deficit and lift the sluggish economy.

In a series of speeches, the six Republicans and six Democrats stressed the importance of compromise, shrugging off the bitter rhetoric of the summer’s partisan brawl over raising the federal debt limit. That fight ended with a hard-fought deal between President Barack Obama and lawmakers that created the supercommittee.

“I approach our task with a profound sense of urgency, high hopes and realistic expectations,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a panel co-chair. “Our task to achieve $1.5 trillion of bipartisan deficit reduction will not be easy but it is essential.”

The Texas Republican said he will not “sit idly by and watch the American dream disappear for my 9-year-old daughter and my 7-year-old son.”

Members of the committee insisted that all elements of the federal budget will be part of any final product. Democrats want a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases while Republicans say entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare should be in any deficit-cutting plan.

“A successful final product from this committee will not be one that any one of us would have written on our own — it will have to include compromises by all sides,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the other co-chair. She noted that committee members have avoided drawing a line in the sand or identifying parts of the budget as off-limits.

Any changes in taxes or entitlement programs strike at issues critical to each party’s voting base, a political reality for the supercommittee with next year’s presidential and congressional elections already shaping the agenda.

Tea party-backed GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said the panel shouldn’t shirk from tax reform — trading wasteful tax subsidies like the ethanol tax credit for lower rates on income.

He also pressed for corporate tax reform to ensure that large companies that use the code to dramatically reduce their levies pay at least some tax.

“When huge, iconic American corporations can pay little or no income tax, well that’s indefensible,” Toomey 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.”

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., his party’s presidential nominee in 2004, said the committee had to send a message that Congress was prepared to make the hard choices.

“We have to find not just common ground, but higher ground,” Kerry said.

The panel is charged with finding, by Thanksgiving, $1.5 trillion in savings over the next decade. If it stumbles, or Congress rejects is plan, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion over a decade would hit defense and domestic spending.

The committee proceedings were briefly interrupted by demonstrators who shouted “Jobs Now!” After the opening remarks, the panel approved its rules and wrapped up in an hour.

“Failure is not an option,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday. He said congressional leaders have appointed serious lawmakers to the panel, “and we fully anticipate they will meet their goals. And we’ll see whether they can even go beyond that.”

Many in Washington, though, are pessimistic that the panel will take a serious bite out of the nation’s enormous $14 trillion in accumulated debt, especially with next year’s elections approaching. They note that Democrats are ardently against cuts in expensive benefits like Medicare while Republicans are adamantly against higher taxes — the two most plentiful sources of potential budget savings.

“Politically, there’s not a lot of motivation on either side” to produce a major package, said Chris Krueger, a political analyst for the brokerage firm MF Global.

Some Democrats on the supercommittee, though, said Wednesday that they want it to go even further and address voters’ angst over the nation’s stubborn unemployment problem. With the government reporting that the economy essentially stopped generating jobs last month, next year’s presidential and congressional elections are pressuring lawmakers to do something about it.

“It’s part of recovery,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., a supercommittee member who said in a brief interview that he wanted the panel to tackle job creation. “Growth will create revenue,” which would help reduce the debt.

“I’m not saying it will be easy, but it should be addressed,” he said.

None of the Democrats specified what job creation program they might favor.

Part of that answer might come Thursday evening when Obama delivers an address on jobs to a joint session of Congress. He is expected to propose extending a reduction in the payroll tax that will otherwise expire, giving tax incentives to companies that hire the jobless and boosting spending on public works.

Republicans would be likely to oppose adding spending to the committee’s debt-reduction effort.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., a supercommittee member, said debt reduction would create jobs because reducing the federal debt would help the economy grow.

“Overspending has really spooked the markets and made it more difficult for employers to have confidence to invest and hire people and create jobs,” Camp said in an interview.

Under the debt ceiling agreement, which narrowly averted a potential federal default, Congress must approve at least $1.2 trillion in savings by Christmas. If it doesn’t, the difference would be made up by automatic spending cuts, divided evenly among defense and many domestic programs.

Behind the scenes, the supercommittee’s work has already begun. Republicans and Democrats each held closed-door, daylong strategy sessions on Wednesday. Boehner, R-Ohio, attended part of the GOP meeting, highlighting the importance of the panel’s work.

Democratic aides to the House Ways and Means Committee have produced documents listing possible options for revenue increases and savings from health care programs, including many that were discussed in previous deficit-reduction talks.

The options, which a Ways and Means spokesman said have not been discussed by lawmakers, include various tax increases on the wealthy, oil companies and businesses that transfer some assets overseas, and savings from Medicare, including trimming reimbursements to health care providers and gradually raising the program’s eligibility age to 67 — which the documents call “a radical departure from current policy.”

Though he has no formal role in the supercommittee’s work, Obama plans to soon give the lawmakers his own debt-reduction plans. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the president’s ideas will be “bigger, in fact, than has been mandated for the supercommittee.”

A second public meeting of the committee is set for next Tuesday, when the head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, will explain how the government’s debt got so huge.

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