Senators meet privately on urging broad debt-reduction plan from supercommittee

September 8, 2011

More than two dozen senators from both parties met privately this week to revive hopes of a grand debt-cutting bargain — exploring how to push the newly formed debt “supercommittee” to find far more than its assigned goal of $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions.

The senators want at least $3 trillion slashed from the deficit over the next decade. In addition, they plan to press the committee to pass a major tax overhaul to lower rates and close special-interest loopholes, as well as changes to entitlement programs such as Medicare, according to several participants.

The effort comes as the 12-member supercommittee begins what is expected to be a grueling process to map out its plans before a November deadline — and it threatens to undercut the chances for President Obama to win passage for portions of a jobs plan expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the short term.

“I don’t think I’m speaking out of school that it was a unanimous feeling among a large group of senators from both sides of the aisle,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of the meeting participants. “Most people are far more focused on this supercommittee than any speech the president’s going to give.”

Another in the group, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), said the senators want to “encourage” the supercommittee “to reach for a higher number.” He said the committee should “compromise with one another and do what parts of each party will not like, for the greater good, because that’s really what most of the people in the country want.”

Obama, too, is expected to press the committee to exceed its deficit-reduction goal. In his speech Thursday night, he called on Congress to increase the super­committee’s deficit-cutting goals to cover the costs of his jobs plan, and he said that a week from Monday he will announce a more detailed plan “that will not only cover the cost of this jobs bill, but stabilize our debt in the long run.”

Several people familiar with the discussions said the lawmakers felt that, after the pomp and ceremony of Obama’s joint-session speech fades, the center of political and policy gravity on Capitol Hill will be the work of the special committee, chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.).

Under last month’s debt-ceiling deal struck by Obama and GOP lawmakers, deep cuts would automatically take effect in national security and other areas if the supercommittee fails to reach agreement or if Congress fails to pass legislation by December.

One senior Democratic aide called Obama’s jobs plan largely “dead on arrival” because its expected price tag would roughly cancel out the one year’s worth of savings many lawmakers hope the supercommittee will find.

The Senate on Thursday blocked a resolution of disapproval for an additional $500 billion increase in the debt ceiling. The procedure is required by the legislation to raise the borrowing limit in phases by at least $2.1 trillion.

A Senate staffer familiar with the senators’ private discussions said the effort was intended to be “complementary” to the work of the supercommittee but also to offer a gentle nudge.

The staffer said the senators’ push would “demonstrate there can be some support and safety if they choose to go beyond their charge.”

Both aides spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private deliberations.

The private gathering this week, held Wednesday in a Capitol meeting room, included about 25 centrists from both parties. It was organized by Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), two members of the “Gang of Six,” which tried unsuccessfully to engineer a grand deal patterned loosely after the plan laid out by the deficit commission headed by former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former senator Alan Simpson.

At least a third of the Senate at one time had indicated some level of support for the broad framework being negotiated by the Gang of Six, according to people familiar with that group’s discussions.

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