Debt supercommittee members differ over panel’s ambition

Serious differences over how ambitious the debt supercommittee should be in cutting deficits emerged Thursday at the panel’s first meeting.

The divide cut across party lines, with some Republicans and some Democrats arguing the panel should seize the moment by tackling entitlement and tax reforms in the pursuit of much larger cuts than the $1.5 trillion the supercommittee is charged with finding.

Co-chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) was among those arguing for tax and entitlement reform, and several Democrats tried to revive the idea of a huge “grand bargain” that could trade tax increases for reforms to Social Security and Medicare, an idea that fell apart during talks led by the White House in July.

Other panel members from both parties appeared to aim for more limited goals, and Hensarling’s co-chairman, Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayNo. 3 Senate Democrat says Biden should tap Black woman for Supreme Court Biden's pledge to appoint Black woman back in spotlight amid Breyer retirement Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul MORE (D-Wash.), made no mention of reviving the grand bargain.

The 12-member group has until Nov. 23 to agree on at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings over the next decade, with an ultimate goal of at least $1.5 trillion in cuts. If it fails to meet the deadline for the $1.2 trillion, that amount of cuts to defense and domestic discretionary spending would be enacted automatically starting in January 2013.

The first meeting was characterized by good will, as members of both parties made an effort to put on a friendly show. The beginnings of other rounds of deficit talks, such as the discussions led earlier this year by Vice President Biden, started similarly.

Yet the Biden talks eventually collapsed when House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorRepublicans eager to take on Spanberger in Virginia Virginia emerging as ground zero in battle for House majority McAuliffe's loss exposes deepening Democratic rift MORE (R-Va.) walked out over tax increases and Democrats tried to demonize him, and the new talks are going forward amid considerable doubt over their chances for success.

Substantively, the most important decision by the committee on Thursday was to allow for private meetings, which could help the committee overcome policy differences. The panel voted to allow the secret meetings if a majority of members approve, and the chairmen stated for the record that informal gatherings don’t even need that.

Democratic Sens. Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusThe good, bad, and ugly of Tester's Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act Biden nominates Nicholas Burns as ambassador to China Cryptocurrency industry lobbies Washington for 'regulatory clarity' MORE (Mont.) and John KerryJohn KerryThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Russia attack 'would change the world' Overnight Energy & Environment — High court will hear case on water rule Kerry warns about efforts to blunt climate change: 'We're in trouble' MORE (Mass.) both made a point of saying the supercommittee should go much further than its mandate.

Baucus argued that a grand bargain could reduce business uncertainty and help the economy — an argument that has also been made by some Republicans.

“Business is looking at us, consumers are looking at us,” said Baucus, who added that such a deal must include increased revenues, a problem for Republicans who oppose any tax hikes.

“The critical words are ‘at least $1.5 trillion,’” said Kerry, who called on the panel to build on the work of past deficit commissions, including one formed by President Obama, as well as the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Six.

Obama’s debt commission favored a $4 trillion deal involving new taxes and entitlement cuts.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here,” Kerry said.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), on the other hand, said the supercommittee should “limit” its sights.

He said the group really only has until the end of October to complete its work, given the need for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to complete its.

He noted that he participated in deficit talks at the White House this summer and with the Biden-led group prior to that.

“Having gone through all that, I think a dose of realism is called for here,” he said. “This is tedious, time-consuming work.”

At a separate event in Washington, Kyl, the Senate minority whip, also warned that he would oppose any additional defense cuts.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) urged the panel to invite Erskine Bowles; former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), co-chairman of Obama’s debt commission; former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin; former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.); and Gang of Six senators to address the supercommittee. Domenici and Rivlin led another debt commission. All of these groups produced a grand bargain of taxes and entitlement reform.

Murray said the panel’s schedule was still being worked out. The next meeting of the group, on Tuesday, will involve a budget update from CBO Director Doug Elmendorf.

Hensarling emphasized the need for the supercommittee to “contribute” to an overhaul of the tax code. He was joined in this call by two of the panel’s GOP senators, Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanBudowsky: President Biden leads NATO against Russian aggression New Mexico Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case MORE (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pa.)

Supercommittee member and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), by contrast, said only that comprehensive reform “should be part of our discussions.” Camp wants tax reform but has also been protective of his committee’s jurisdiction and has warned that tax reform takes time. The 1986 overhaul took three years of work, experts said.

Hensarling also called for entitlement reform to be tackled, as did Toomey.

On the other side of the aisle, Democratic Reps. James Clyburn (S.C.) and Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOvernight Health Care — COVID-19 deaths pass peak from delta surge The names to know as Biden mulls Breyer's replacement The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Breaking: Justice Breyer to retire MORE (Calif.) emphasized the need for Congress to address unemployment.