WASHINGTON – 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, hopes to help broker a deal somewhere in the middle — on an issue where failure is the rule.
Shortly after the session, at least one Republican member threatened to quit if the panel considers cuts in defense beyond the $350 billion over a decade that Congress approved last month as part of a package of deep spending reductions and an increase in the debt limit.
"I'm off the committee if we're going to talk about further defense" cuts, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl said he told panel members. Speaking at a defense forum, Kyl said the military "has given enough already, and any further hit would be inimical to our national security around the globe."
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.
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 $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.