Simpson, Bowles join call for supercommittee to set their sights high

Outside observers, even fellow lawmakers, are urging members of the deficit-reducing supercommittee to zoom past their mandate and “go big” to rein in the federal debt.

But whether the 12 lawmakers on the special panel can find the common ground on taxes and entitlements that would likely have to be included in any grand bargain is another question entirely.

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With the supercommittee set to start rolling up its sleeves on Tuesday, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles — the co-chairmen of President Obama’s fiscal commission — and dozens of others continued to press their case on Monday, outlining their case in a letter to committee members. 

In a news conference, Bowles and Simpson stressed that a bigger deal would help stabilize America’s debt and reassure the markets and ratings agencies, in the aftermath of S&P’s recent downgrade.

The two men added that, as counterintuitive as it might sound, their experience with the fiscal commission led them to believe the new deficit panel would actually find it easier to reach a consensus on a broader package, one in which every sector and interest group took a hit.

“We went from a very few people supporting what we were doing when we were trying to do just little small pieces, to having a lot of support — bipartisan support,” Bowles, a former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, told The Hill after Monday’s news conference. 

Bowles and Simpson were joined by roughly 60 others in the letter to supercommittee members, including business leaders, a half-dozen former chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers, three former Treasury secretaries and more than 15 former members of Congress.

The supercommittee is set to start delving into the nitty-gritty in earnest on Tuesday, when it hears testimony from Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office. 

The panel is tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts, in order to stave off across-the-board cuts that both parties would find difficult to swallow. 

Those pushing the supercommittee to go big essentially want it to find $3 trillion, or about double the mandated cuts. That figure, coupled with already passed cuts, supporters of the broader approach say, would get the panel to the sort of $4 trillion package reached by the Bowles-Simpson commission and other debt panels.

But with some Washington observers already skeptical that the supercommittee can reach its goal, major Capitol Hill players are concerned that pressing the panel to go big could be counterproductive.

“We ought not be engaging in making promises we can’t keep,” Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, told reporters on Monday. “I’m very much for making sure that there will be success in this Joint Select Committee. I think the risk of failure is something that is unacceptable. We can’t accept that.”

And it remains an open question whether the two sides can come to agreement in areas like taxes and entitlements.

“As all of the previous bipartisan commission reports have made clear, the only way to ‘go big’ is to include revenue,” an aide to a senior congressional Democrat said. “So the key question is, will Republicans put revenues on the table?

“To this point, Democrats have been careful not to draw too many lines in the sand.”

On the other side of the aisle, an aide to a GOP lawmaker noted that there appeared to be more reason to believe the two parties could find some agreement on entitlements than taxes, given recent statements made by President Obama and others. 

But, noting the difficulties officials had in trying to reach a grand bargain in recent months, the aide added: “I’m not sure why we’d think the third time’s the charm on $4 trillion. In the current economic climate, it’s still a bad idea to raise taxes.”

To add to its difficulties, the supercommittee picked up an additional item on its checklist last week, when President Obama urged the dozen lawmakers to find offsets for his $447 billion jobs plan. 

That move did not sit well with Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), one of the panel’s co-chairmen. 

“This proposal would make the already arduous challenge of finding bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction nearly impossible, removing our options for deficit reduction for a plan that won’t reduce the deficit by one penny,” Hensarling said in a statement.

But even with all those roadblocks, Bowles and Simpson said Monday that they were optimistic the supercommittee might choose to go big. 

And they’re not alone: Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, is among those who have expressed hope that the supercommittee could find more than $1.5 trillion in cuts. 

Moreover, a bipartisan group of roughly two dozen senators is exploring ways to help the supercommittee reach a wider agreement, a spokesman for Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told The Hill.

Bowles and Simpson ticked off a number of reasons on Monday why they thought the supercommittee had a shot at reaching a broader agreement — including increased pressure from the public, the groundwork already laid by past debt panels and the fact that only a majority of the committee needed to be on board to move its recommendations forward.

“We’re not saying, ‘Be sure to take our proposal.’ We’re just saying, ‘Are you flexible?’ ” Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, said Monday. “The heat is on.”

Russell Berman contributed to this story.