Successfully reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years would help create jobs, members of a new bipartisan congressional committee charged with cutting the nation’s debt said at the panel’s first meeting Thursday.
The 12 senators and representatives appointed to the so-called “supercommittee” as part of an August deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling meet in an atmosphere of optimism that the group will find agreement on spending and taxing issues that have eluded several previous efforts to reduce the deficit.
But they held their first public session, an organizational and introductory gathering, on the same day that President Obama will address Congress with a jobs creation proposal and as Washington’s debate has largely pivoted from the spending debate to a conversation about how to address stubbornly high unemployment.
In a series of optimistic opening statements in which committee members promised to work in a bipartisan spirit, they also worked to tie their efforts to Congress’ broader work on job creation.
“I hope it would be obvious to all that deficit reduction and a path to fiscal stability are themselves a jobs program,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex).
“We can’t fix jobs without fixing our budget and we can’t fix our budget without fixing jobs,” said Democratic Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said.
The message was underscored as the meeting was briefly interrupted by protesters in the hallway outside the Rayburn committee meeting who loudly chanted, “What do we want? Jobs! When do we want them? Now!”
At the meeting, the group offered few specifics about how to find agreement but promised to start their work with frameworks built by past efforts to reduce the deficit.
Beyond the pledges of cooperation, members’ opening statements contained some hints of the disagreements that have separated the parties on deficit reduction and foiled previous efforts.
Several Democrats said the group must find a “balanced” approach to the task, suggesting that the group must raise revenue through taxes even as they cut spending.
Republicans endorsed addressing the tax code as part of the committee’s work, but promised to do so in a way to promote growth, which could mean actually cutting taxes.
Still, members insisted that they would approach their business with an open mind. They said they knew that the weight of proving a historically unpopular Congress can find ways to govern has fallen on their shoulders.
“This committee has the opportunity to show the American people we can still come together, put politics aside, and solve a problem plaguing our country,” said Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the panel’s Democratic chair.
House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) rejected the idea floated in some circles that the joint committee should revisit the so-called grand bargain that Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) were negotiating in July with an eye toward more than $4 trillion in savings over the next decade.
Boehner walked away from those talks amid disputes about how much increased tax revenue should be brought in, and Thursday, Cantor suggested that the volatile market swings that occurred in August in the immediate aftermath of the final debt deal were caused by improperly setting expectations.
“Let’s stop over-promising here. ... Maybe the expectations couldn’t have been met,” Cantor said Thursday at a luncheon hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Instead of renewed talk of a grand bargain, Cantor said he wants the committee to set its sights on “incremental progress” that brings about savings that can properly “manage expectations” for financial markets and ratings agencies. His preferred target is the $1.5 trillion set in the legislation approved in early August, which, when combined with the more than $900 billion in spending cuts agreed to, would bring total savings to more than $2.4 trillion. That was the rough target of springtime talks that Cantor led along with Vice President Biden.
Under pressure to tackle their work, which must be finished by Nov. 23, in public, the committee adopted rules that call for open meetings. But they were quick to note that more informal work sessions and caucus gatherings can be held behind closed doors.
The committee is set to meet next on Tuesday, when the group will hear from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf.