The Washington Post

Supercommittee hasn’t ‘given up hope,’ Hensarling says

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

The co-chairman of Congress’s special debt “supercommittee” said Sunday that the panel’s 12 bipartisan members remain hopeful that they can reach a deal before their Nov. 23 deadline.

“We haven’t given up hope,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But if this was easy, the president of the United States and the speaker of the House would have gotten it done themselves.”

Two days ago, President Obama called Hensarling and the panel’s other co-chair, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), to urge the lawmakers to reach an agreement that would both raise revenues and reform federal entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

But there have been no signs over the weekend that the group is any closer to reaching a deal, and 10 days now remain until the group’s Thanksgiving deadline.

Hensarling on Sunday described the panel as facing both a “duty” and a “goal.” The group’s duty, he said, is to address they country’s long-term debt by fundamentally restructuring federal entitlement programs.

The committee’s goal, by contrast, is to come up with a plan to achieve at least $1.2 trillion in savings over the next decade, Hensarling said. He added that even if the panel falls short in that effort, the resulting $1.2 trillion across-the-board cut that would be triggered in January 2013 will ensure that the target set out in August’s debt-ceiling legislation is reached.

Some in Congress, particularly defense hawks such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), have pledged to work against such an across-the-board cut, as it would target defense as well as non-defense spending.

In his conversations Friday with Hensarling and Murray, Obama warned against efforts to undo the “trigger” if the supercommittee fails. But Sunday, Hensarling appeared open to such efforts.

”Frankly, it affects disproportionately national defense in a way that even the secretary of defense says will hollow out the national defense,” Hensarling said of the potential across-the-board cut.

He added: “What I’m willing to do is be committed to ensuring that at least America gets that $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction that Congress would have 13 months to do it in a smarter fashion.”

In last week’s negotiations, Republicans presented a plan that for the first time put new tax revenue on the table. Democrats rejected the proposal as “unserious” and criticized Republicans for not including more new revenue. Hensarling responded Sunday by arguing that the GOP “put a half-a-trillion dollars of revenues on the table. Some of that is fees, but $250 (billion) of it is what most people call static tax revenue.”

“I hope I’m never in Washington to where I consider $250 billion of the American people’s money, to be ‘token,’” he added.

He then took aim at Democrats’ proposal, arguing that “frankly, there are no real spending cuts on the table.”

“Let’s make sure we are using the language like the American people do,” Hensarling said. “All we are talking about here is slowing the rate of growth. All of these programs, by and large, are going to continue to grow, but at a pace that would become more sustainable.”

Asked whether the supercommittee might hash out a plan that would delegate decisions on tax reform and other matters to certain congressional committees, Hensarling said that such a proposal was still a possibility.

“Yes, there could be a two-step process that would hopefully give us pro-growth tax reform – which, by the way, every other bipartisan effort that has said that some revenues have to be raised in this method,” he said.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), another one of the six Republicans on the supercommittee, said Sunday that the panel’s members “still have time, but we have no time to waste.”

“I think we got a ways to go, but I hope we can close that gap very quickly,” Toomey said on “Fox News Sunday.”

If the panel fails, Toomey said, “there will be further erosion of what little confidence remains of our federal government.” But he, like Hensarling, appeared open to Congress attempting to undo the across-the-board cuts that might be enacted by the “trigger.”

“I’m not giving up on getting something done,” he said. “I really think we still can. ... But in a very, very unfortunate event that we don’t, I think it’s very likely that Congress would reconsider the configuration of that sequestration and consider, ‘Is this really the best way to do it?’”

“I think that would be a lively debate that will occur and the nature of those cuts -- which I think the cuts have to occur -- they might occur in a different fashion,” he added.

Also appearing on “Fox News Sunday” was another supercommittee member, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who said that he was “very hopeful” the panel would reach a compromise in the next ten days.

“I am not as certain as I was 10 days ago, but I think that, again, we’ve got 10 days to do this, and I really believe that all of the ingredients for a good resolution are there,” Clyburn said. “We just need to build the will.”

Asked about the plan that Democrats on the supercommittee put forward earlier this month, Clyburn described the proposal as “a Democrat’s plan; it’s not the Democratic plan.”

“There are six Democrats on this committee and though I have a great deal of admiration and respect for all of them, the fact of the matter is, Democrats have not coalesced around a plan,” he said.

Toward the end of the interview, host Chris Wallace argued that “it doesn’t sound like there is any progress at all” being made by the supercommittee.

Clyburn responded: “About two-thirds of what Pat Toomey has put on the table I am for, I’ll tell you. And that may shock you. What I’m not for is trying to count something that CBO will not score. The legislation is very clear, we’ve got to come up with a plan that CBO will score, not that Pat Toomey will dream about. And it’s a dream, I believe, that if you do this and if you do that, it will create all this dynamic growth.”


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