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Deficit Panel Meets, Vows To Get The Job Done

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On Capitol Hill, a newly formed Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, dubbed the "supercommittee," met Thursday for the first time. Its marching orders: come up with a plan by Thanksgiving to shrink deficits by at least $1.2 trillion, agree on it, and make sure it can also pass both the House and the Senate by Christmas.

That could prove a tall order for the panel's six Republicans and six Democrats. But if they fail to reach bipartisan agreement on a plan to cut deficits — whether it's by cutting more spending, raising taxes or a combination of both — by law that money will automatically be cut equally from defense and non-defense budgets over the next decade.

Texas House Republican Jeb Hensarling, who co-chairs the supercommittee, gaveled in Thursday's meeting and vowed to get the job done.

"I will not sit idly by and watch the American dream disappear for my 9-year-old daughter and my 7-year-old son," he said. "And I believe that is a sentiment shared by all of my colleagues."

Co-chair Patty Murray, a Democratic senator from Washington state, reminded colleagues that neither party has a numerical advantage on the panel — which is why, she said, all must remain open to one another's views and stand ready to compromise.

"That's why I've been so glad that, as we have gotten this process off the ground over the last few weeks, committee members have refrained from drawing lines in the sand or carving out areas that can't be touched," she said.

The question facing all the panel members is whose ox will be gored to achieve the deficit reductions. House Democrat James Clyburn of South Carolina said the sacrifice must be shared.

"Any solution to our debt problems must be fair," said Clyburn. "It is just plain wrong to put all the burden of debt and deficit reduction on the elderly, the middle class and the poor."

Like other Democrats on the panel, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana said more tax revenues had to be on the table: "We have to include revenues — it's not just spending, it also is revenues."

And like other Republicans, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey wants to target safety-net programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

"If we're gonna truly meet the challenge that we face, I think we do need to address the big entitlement programs that we all know are driving this fiscal problem," said Toomey. "And we all know it's not easy — it's not easy for any of us to do that. We've all got many constituents who rely on these programs."

Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the solution is cutting more spending. "The problem we face is obvious," he said. "There's too much government spending and too much federal debt, which are impeding our economy's ability to grow."

At that point, protesters in the corridor outside the hearing began chanting, "jobs now, jobs now."

That call was echoed by several Democrats on the supercommittee — creating more jobs, they said, is the best way to reduce deficits. Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen said it's time for the panel to get to work.

"There are plenty of ideas out there for reducing the deficit that have been thoroughly debated, and we have a menu of options," he said. "So I think all of us would agree that if the committee were to fail, and I'm confident it won't, but it would be not for lack of ideas, but for a lack of political will."

Cracks are already appearing in the panel's resolve. After the meeting, Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl told a gathering of conservatives he would leave the committee if it cut defense spending.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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