Politics & Government

Big bipartisan group of lawmakers pushes debt-panel to aim high

WASHINGTON _ With the deadline for a supercommittee deficit-reduction deal closing in, more than 150 members of Congress from both political parties made a renewed push Wednesday for a $4 trillion package.

But that doesn't appear likely to happen, since the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is struggling even to come up with its mandated goal of at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee urged the panel members to compromise.

"This is about more than money. It's about whether the president and Congress can competently govern," Alexander said.

With a week to go before they must vote, lawmakers on the supercommittee engaged in another day of private meetings and public bickering.

Co-chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said he'd be willing to consider more revenue, but not until Democrats offered more serious steps to cut entitlement programs such as Medicare.

"What I've had yet to see is a (plan) that fundamentally solves the problem," he said, adding that he would not rule out any option. Democrats remained huddled in private meetings discussing strategy.

If the 12-member panel of six Democrats and six Republicans does not succeed, or Congress rejects its proposals, automatic across-the-board spending cuts, half from defense and half from domestic programs, would be triggered starting in 2013. Social Security and programs for lower-income people would be exempt, and Medicare cuts would be limited to providers, not beneficiaries.

The bipartisan coalition, which includes some leaders from both parties, is trying to give the dealmakers a push. At least 45 senators and 102 members of the House of Representatives pledged support for the bigger goal. Any package needs 51 Senate and 218 House votes to succeed.

"The time is now for the supercommittee to be brave and go big," said Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., one of the effort's organizers.

"There's no more time for partisan finger-pointing," added Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. "Frankly, the American people no longer have the stomach for it."

They offered no specifics but pointed to recommendations from previous bipartisan debt panels that urged a combination of higher taxes and spending reductions.

Among the Capitol Hill leaders offering support was House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

"We want them to know that there is a large and significant number of us in both chambers who want such a deal and are ready to give it a fair shot," he said.

The supercommittee aims to have recommendations ready by Monday, so that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office can analyze them and make sure the plan meets the deficit-reduction targets set by law last summer. The committee would then have until Nov. 23 to vote.

If a panel majority approves its plan, Congress will have until Dec. 23 to vote on it. The most prominent Republican proposal would cut about $1.5 trillion over 10 years. It would raise $500 billion to $600 billion in new revenues; $250 billion would come from changes in taxes. Individual rates would drop, with the top rate, now 35 percent, dipping to 28 percent, while many deductions would be limited.

Hensarling said Republicans would be willing to negotiate, but not until Democrats propose bigger entitlement savings.

"I'm not going to negotiate against myself," he said.

One major Democratic plan would save $2.3 trillion, including $1 trillion in new revenues and $400 billion in Medicare and Medicaid cuts. Republicans are unenthusiastic about it.

Proposals appear to be constantly changing. Top congressional leaders have been involved in strategy sessions, and committee members have been meeting at times in small groups.

"Many of us continue to be optimistic," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., a committee member. He said there were "any number of micro-discussions taking place."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was less upbeat.

"I was hoping there would be a lot of handholding and hugs and pats on the back and we'd be headed off to Thanksgiving," he said Tuesday. "But at this stage, we've seen a few arm locks" and “headlocks.”

Hensarling warned against drawing any conclusions from the gossip coming out of the private talks.

"Clearly, we are approaching the stroke of midnight," he said. "I'm not giving up hope until that stroke of midnight."


Debt reduction deal

Domenici-Rivlin report

Bowles-Simpson Commission report

Website of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction MORE FROM McCLATCHY:

Deficit-reduction panel offers bitter medicine

Debt-reduction 'supercommittee' starts work with a tone of comity

’Supercommittee’ hears grim economic, budget outlook from CBO

Debt panel to meet in public, but few signs of progress yet

For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

Related stories from McClatchy DC