Republicans aren't ruling out raising taxes or any other option for dealing with the country's debt problem as they head into the White House fiscal commission's first meeting.
"Everything is on the table," said Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), one of six GOP lawmakers on the commission, when asked by The Hill whether he'd block any recommendation to raise taxes.
Coburn, Hensarling and the four other GOP lawmakers on the panel haven't set preconditions on the commission's talks, echoing the line President Barack Obama gave when he created the panel by executive order in January. The first meeting is scheduled for April 27.
Obama is calling on the 18-member panel to produce a set of recommendations that will reduce large deficits to sustainable levels. With everything on the table, the panel may look at cuts to discretionary spending, changes in benefits received through entitlement programs and new taxes.
Republicans had initially criticized the White House commission, which includes six GOP lawmakers, six Democratic members of Congress and six people chosen by Obama.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called it "a partisan Washington exercise rigged to impose massive tax increases and pass the buck on the tough choices we need to be making right now."
Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have called on the commission to focus on ways to cut spending, such as a repeal of the stimulus and caps on discretionary spending levels, when dealing with deficits.
Economic experts, including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, have said in recent weeks that a combination of changes to spending, tax and entitlement policies is likely to be needed to deal with the debt.
Federal debt is expected to grow from a level of about 60 percent of gross domestic product this year to 90 percent by 2020 under the policies proposed in the president's budget request, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). A level of debt that high is "unsustainable" and is shared only by a few countries, including Greece, which is getting bailed out by its European neighbors, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf said this month.
Just because Republicans haven't ruled anything out as the commission ramps up doesn't mean they'll end up backing tax hikes they'd normally oppose.
"When people say, 'Would you be willing to put tax increases on the table?,' not only are they on the table, they've been enacted," Hensarling said. "I don't care to see any more enacted."
Hensarling noted that the level of taxation is already scheduled to go up under current law. Much of that increase is due to the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts scheduled for the end of this year.
Hensarling said he was "hopeful" a set of proposals could emerge from the commission but he wasn't optimistic. He preferred a fiscal panel that had an equal number of members of both parties and would report out recommendations to be voted on by Congress before the November midterm election.
"I don't know if this [White House commission] is real or if this is an effort to take most inconvenient issues between now and the end of the election off the table," he said.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who first proposed the idea of a bipartisan fiscal commission in the Senate with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), said getting participants to consider different solutions is a big reason to turn to a special process to tackle debt.
"If you reach a conclusion before you've gone through
the process, every interest group in Washington will organize to kill it,"
"There are people in both parties who really don't want to change anything, and the reality is, we've got to change a lot of things to meet this challenge," he added.
The commission plans to issue a final report with its recommendations in December, after the mid-term elections. The final report must receive the support of 14 of the 18 members on the panel. Democratic leaders in both chambers have said they would bring the panel's recommendations up for a vote in December.
Obama may also have to choose between his past rhetoric and getting something through the commission. While he pledged during the presidential campaign not to increase taxes on individuals making less than $200,000 and couples making less than $250,000, he has insisted that the commission can consider any option.
"Every commitment that everyone has made has got to be open for reconsideration," Conrad said when asked about Obama's tax pledge.
Conrad said he supports a reform of a tax system
"rather than going back and increasing taxes that have been previously
Just 80 percent of the taxes owed to the government is actually collected, he said.
"We've got a system on the revenue side that's leaking... so we clearly also have to address the spending side of the equation in a major way, and reform of the entitlements is the place where spending is growing much more rapidly than the economy," Conrad said.