WASHINGTON — The bipartisan "supercommittee" charged with finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by Thanksgiving proved to be an oasis of calm and cooperation Thursday during its first meeting, a stark contrast to the partisan turmoil that's plagued Congress this year.
While the 12 panel members, six Democrats and six Republicans, offered familiar partisan themes, they also stressed the gravity of their mission and the need to get along.
"None of us sitting here is so important or so permanent that we can ignore the demands of history or the demands of the moment," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "We have to find not just common ground, but higher ground."
Ironically, the committee was created because lawmakers were unable to agree on a big debt-reduction package this summer. They tried in a series of bipartisan forums, including separate efforts led by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. When all efforts to craft a big plan proved elusive, the two sides agreed to create the new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.
It has until Nov. 23 to come up with recommendations to reduce deficits over the coming decade by at least $1.2 trillion, and hopefully $1.5 trillion. Congress then will have a month to approve the recommendations; if it does not, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts will be triggered starting in 2013.
Half the automatic cuts would come from defense, and half from non-defense programs. Social Security, Medicaid, military and civilian pensions and most low-income programs would not be affected. Medicare cuts would be restricted to payments to providers and not beneficiaries.
The panel's members, appointed by congressional leaders, are a mix of lawmakers with highly partisan reputations as well as some known for their willingness to compromise. Its next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, is to feature Douglas Elmendorf, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The 75-minute meeting Thursday had some partisan overtones and was interrupted briefly by a group of about two dozen protesters chanting "Jobs now." But the committee's tone was overwhelmingly gentle.
Republicans have been urging fundamental changes to entitlement programs including Social Security and Medicare; such programs are major contributors to future debt.
"In order to succeed, this committee must primarily be about saving and reforming social safety net programs that are not only failing many beneficiaries but going broke at the same time," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, a committee co-chairman.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., warned that budget cuts should not be used to hurt those who need federal help most.
"It is just plain wrong to put the burden of debt reduction on the elderly, the middle class and the poor," he said.
There also were polite disagreements on overall spending and tax policy. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., stressed that major deficit reduction would lead to more economic growth.
"If that's all we do," he said of the $1.5 trillion goal, "we wouldn't be really doing all that's necessary to put us on a pro-growth sustainable path." Revamping the tax code, he said, should be considered.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., reminded the panel that lower taxes alone were not the answer.
"All of us need to recognize that huge tax cuts, while we engaged in two wars, helped create the fiscal mess we are in now," he said. "We also need to recognize that it is unrealistic to try to balance the budget — now or in the future — with added revenues alone."
The tone of the day, though, was restrained, as lawmakers sought to cool the anger that's characterized earlier budget debates this year.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a moderate voice, said he wanted to "aim for structural reforms that preserve and strengthen the important entitlement programs, ensure the benefits for those in need," but also control costs.
"That doesn't mean we should ignore taxes," he said. "We should try to fix our complex, anti-growth tax code."
In short, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a committee co-chair, "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."
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