WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans and Democrats on a powerful committee that's supposed to cut deficits are pledging to aim even higher than their $1.2 trillion target.
At their first meeting today, members emphasized that they will consider tax reform as well as cuts to benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare. But no specific proposals were debated at the opening session.
The committee faces a deadline of Nov. 23. If it doesn't produce a 10-year package of cuts of at least $1.2 trillion, across-the-board spending cuts would take place. Any agreement on cuts of up to $1.5 trillion that are approved by both houses of Congress would let President Barack Obama request a dollar-for-dollar rise in the debt limit.
Committee members acknowledged that a deal won't be easy. But they said it's necessary to try, at a time when the economy is weak and joblessness is high.
THIS IS AN UPDATE TO PREVIOUS AP COVERAGE. THE EARLIER STORY CAN BE SEEN BELOW.
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.
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.
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."
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.