Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is one of a dozen lawmakers on the debt supercommittee, which has been tasked with producing a deficit-cutting plan by Thanksgiving. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Usually, the expectations game in Washington is governed by a simple mantra: Underpromise and overdeliver.

But when it comes to the bipartisan debt supercommittee, the opposite appears to be true.

One of the main decisions that the 12-member joint panel will have to face early on will be the scale of the deficit-reduction package it would like to pursue.

The panel, which holds its first meeting today, has until Thanksgiving to agree on $1.5 trillion in deficit savings over the next decade or else it will pull the “trigger” on $1.2 trillion in cuts to defense and domestic discretionary spending that would be enacted in January 2013.

As lawmakers return to Capitol Hill this week after a five-week recess, several congressional leaders have said the supercommittee should aim as high as possible — potentially in the $4 trillion range.

That would mirror the goal of previous deficit-reduction efforts such as the Domenici-Rivlin and the Simpson-Bowles plans, as well as the “grand bargain” that was briefly pursued by President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) over the summer before the debt-ceiling talks between the two leaders collapsed.

“Yes, I want them to go bigger than that,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday when asked whether he thought the group should shoot for more than $1.5 trillion in savings. “I’m not going to set a number, but I’d like it to be more than the minimum.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said at his weekly pen-and-pad briefing that he, too, would like the committee to act with the “courage and conviction to adopt essentially the plan, the premise and the proposals” of the previous deficit-reduction commissions. He also noted that he had spoken with all of the supercommittee members except for Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

“I have made it very clear to each one of them that I want to work with them and will use whatever influence and abilities I have to accomplish success of creating a consensus within the committee to make recommendations to bring down our debt and deficit and to grow jobs,” Hoyer said.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) declined to say Wednesday whether he would like to see the supercommittee aim for more than $1.5 trillion in savings.

“It is about delivering results,” Cantor said of the debt-reduction group. “They have a lot on their plate. And having been through several rounds of this with the White House and through the Biden discussions, I don’t think it is helpful for me to say what they ought to be doing or not. I have full confidence in the people who the speaker put on that committee to try and produce results.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also did not give a ballpark figure for how much he would like to see the supercommittee achieve in deficit savings, but he did insist that “failure is not an option” for the panel.

“The committee is structured to succeed,” McConnell said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “We have put very serious people on there who are interested in getting an outcome for the country, and we fully anticipate they will meet their goals. And we’ll see whether they can even go beyond that, but we certainly know that they will meet their goals.”

The bipartisan optimism echoes that of the participants in the debt-ceiling talks led by Vice President Biden over the spring. Those negotiations fell apart in late June over an impasse on taxes — and with the ideological gap between the parties on economic issues as wide as ever, it’s unclear the tenor of the debate this time will be much different.

One factor that could change the calculus is the tanking public approval ratings of Congress and Obama. Incumbents on both sides of the aisle could be at real risk if the latest bipartisan debt-reduction group fails, giving new incentive for the panel’s members to reach a deal.