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President Barack Obama urged Congress last week to take his jobs plan and "pass it now" — but that call rang loudest for the 12 lawmakers on the newly created Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, which the president has now tasked with finding an additional $447 billion to pay for his proposal.
The bipartisan, bicameral super committee's job of finding $1.2 trillion to
$1.5 trillion in savings — a challenge issued by Obama in August to secure an agreement to raise the debt ceiling — has just gotten nearly a half-trillion dollars more difficult.
The panel's first meeting Thursday morning was marked by optimism from both parties, but Tuesday's second public meeting is sure to look different. The tone shifted almost immediately following the committee meeting as Republican lawmakers in particular voiced concerns that the president's proposal would increase spending levels.
In their public session Thursday, Members from both sides of the aisle said the committee should "aim higher" and hit targets exceeding the ones set by the debt limit deal last month. But by the end of the night Thursday, it seemed that lawmakers should have been more careful about what they said.
"It appears President Obama is once again abdicating responsibility in paying for his plans, pushing it off on the deficit reduction committee," Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a member of the super committee, said Thursday night.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, who is also on the panel, suggested that perhaps the super committee was going to need to find superpowers to fulfill the taller order from the White House. In a statement that seemed to mark the shift from unbridled optimism to realism, the Arizona Republican said lawmakers should consider the calendar and acknowledge that finding $2 trillion in savings in two months is a herculean task.
"After we hit $1.5 trillion I'd be happy to think about it, but it's going to be hard enough to get $1.5 trillion in cuts," Kyl said in a Capitol hallway. "I was just trying to say, 'Guys, it's all fun and dandy to try to talk in all these grandiose terms, but we have got a lot of work to do in a very short period of time.'"
In a brief interview, Portman said Obama instead should focus on cost-neutral jobs-boosting measures such as sending Congress pending trade agreements, a point that the Senate Republican Conference has driven home in recent weeks.
"I had hoped he would have gone in the opposite direction, which is to figure out ways to reduce the deficit and the debt, rather than add to it," said Portman, a close confidant of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Portman huddled with McConnell in the leader's office Thursday night after Obama's address to Congress.
Democrats see the situation differently, emphasizing that creating jobs increases cash flow to the government and that the input of more spending now could lead ultimately to deficit reduction. Still, Members and aides from both parties are awaiting plans from the White House on how exactly they suggest the jobs proposal and deficit reduction targets be met. The administration is set to reveal its proposed pay-fors for the American Jobs Act early this week and a larger proposal on how to reduce the deficit, including entitlement reform, next Monday.
House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has had "some conversations" with the president about his potential offsets, said he believes "there's plenty of room for discussion and inclusion for the president's proposals" within the constructs of the super committee.
Van Hollen, a House appointee to the committee, also addressed what became the super committee's first conflict late last week when Kyl told an audience at an American Enterprise Institute/Heritage Foundation event that he would walk away from the committee if it decided to recommend deeper cuts to defense spending. The first portion of the debt deal passed in August already included hundreds of billions of dollars in defense cuts.
"It's curious because if the committee fails to reach an agreement, you have very deep, unacceptably deep, cuts to defense," said Van Hollen, who participated with Kyl in debt talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden earlier this year. "I think we're better off working together in the group to prevent that from happening — to prevent the sword of Damocles from falling and making very deep cuts in defense, rather than trying to overturn the whole agreement that was passed."
Democrats are cautiously optimistic about Obama's proposals gaining traction in a bitterly divided Congress. Though some progressives hoped the president would have gone further, and others still, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), lamented that the payroll tax cuts would be paid for with money from the Social Security trust fund, many acknowledged that Obama said what was practical.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), another member of the super committee, said Obama was being pragmatic both in what he proposed and in leaning on the nascent debt panel to find a way to fund those proposals.
"The president did the things that he feels Congress can pass. And he's looking really to get things on the table that don't create the traditional gridlocked, ideological struggle. So I think he was smart to put a series of things on [the table] that will really put to the test: 'Are people prepared to do things for the country that they've already supported, or is this politics?'" Kerry said.
He added that the super committee "is the place where the Congress is going to vote on expedited procedure on whatever we put in front of them [so] we have an opportunity to get something done. ... It's doable."