Congressional debt reduction panel kicks off work

By Alan Fram

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 8 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, center, joined by Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., left, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, right, arrive for the start of the opening meeting of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, often called the "supercommittee", on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. Made up of six Republican and six Democratic members of Congress, the panel is charged with finding, by Thanksgiving, $1.5 trillion in savings over the next decade.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

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 Thursday 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.

The panel is charged with finding, by Thanksgiving, $1.5 trillion in savings over the next decade.

The committee proceedings were briefly interrupted by demonstrators who shouted "Jobs Now!" After the opening remarks, the panel planned to approve its rules.

"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, 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.

Another supercommittee member, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., asked whether he wanted the panel to tackle job creation, said he "may lay out that thought" at Thursday's meeting.

"I don't think you can reduce the deficit of the country to the scope that we need to without growth" of the economy, he said.

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