A powerful new congressional deficit reduction committee pledged during its first public meeting Thursday to put partisan bickering aside and reach its goal of finding more than a trillion dollars in savings — portraying a gloomy scenario should it fail.
“Will history record that we wrote the first chapter of America’s decline, or will history record that we kept faith with the Founding Fathers and previous generations and left the next generation with greater blessings of liberty and vaults of limitless opportunities?” asked Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican and a panel co-chairman. “The choice is ours.”
The organizational meeting, which was little more than an opportunity for the panel’s 12 members to give general opening statements, included no specific proposals. The panel’s first hearing, which is open to the public, is scheduled for Tuesday.
Members of the so-called supercommittee refrained from the bitter partisan debt- and deficit-reduction battles that engulfed the Capitol this summer.
“I stand ready to reach a reasonable compromise for the good of the country,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat. ” ‘Compromise’ is not a dirty word.”
The panel, equally divided between the parties and the two chambers, is tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in government savings during the next decade. Democrats want a mix of spending cuts, revenue increases and job growth measures. Republicans say reducing government regulations, plus making tax cuts and reforms of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare should be part of any deficit-cutting plan.
Panel member Sen. Rob Portman said that while finding $1.5 trillion in budget cuts is a daunting task, “we should aim higher.”
“We should aim to do what’s necessary to bring long-term sustainability to the federal budget,” the Ohio Republican said. “But let’s at least hit our $1.5 trillion target.”
Members promised to consider all aspects of the federal budget for cuts.
“A successful final product from this committee will not be one that any one of us would have written on our own,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington state Democrat and the group’s other co-chairman. “It will have to include compromises on all sides.”
But Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said after the meeting that if the panel targets the Defense Department for cuts beyond those already proposed or implemented, “I’m off of the committee.”
“First we did discretionary spending in the budget act, second, defense was half of that even though it’s not half of the budget obviously, and third we can’t afford any more,” said Mr. Kyl at an afternoon event sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
The panel must vote by Thanksgiving on a plan, which the House and Senate must vote on before Christmas. Failure to pass a package would trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts and simultaneously would allow the president to seek another increase in the federal debt limit of the same size.
While many of the committee’s meetings will be public, some of its nuts-and-bolts work will be done behind closed doors, a scenario that bothers many — including some lawmakers.
“We cannot allow this committee to dissolve into a supersecret committee — its responsibility is much too great,” said Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, who isn’t on the panel.
The Thursday meeting was halted for several minutes while police escorted out several protesters, who shouted, “Jobs now.”
• Eli Lake contributed to this report.