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Super Committee to Break Bread and Break Ground

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
From left: Reps. Fred Upton, Xavier Becerra and Jeb Hensarling and Sen. Patty Murray conduct a Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction hearing on Tuesday.

Some have suggested that while the larger group begins to meet more frequently, smaller groups will begin splitting off to work on separate issues to bring back to the panel's full meetings. For example, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) have a history of pairing up on tax reform issues and could spearhead one of the super committee's most challenging policy areas. Republicans have said they are open to tax reform in this process, but recent history indicates that it is a difficult task to achieve, considering the Biden group disintegrated when GOP members, including current deficit panel member Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), walked away from the talks. However, some warned that any breakout work will have to get leaders' blessings.

Earlier Tuesday, Elmendorf recommended that the group focus on maximizing economic growth by increasing government spending or cutting taxes "in the near term." He urged them to decrease spending or raise taxes over the "long term." That could be a difficult balance for a panel the president has asked to find nearly $2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years.

Elmendorf's take on the economy in the public hearing came one day after Obama sent his jobs bill to Congress. The White House bill leans heavily on the super committee to find many of the offsets for the $447 billion package.

The CBO director's testimony at the panel's first hearing also contrasted starkly with the idea, championed by Congressional Republicans over the summer, that additional spending is detrimental to economic growth as it increases the already-burgeoning federal deficit.

"According to the CBO's analysis, credible policy changes that would substantially reduce deficits late in the coming decade and over the long term without immediate cuts in spending or increases in taxes would support the economic expansion in the next few years and strengthen the economy over the longer term," Elmendorf told the panel in his opening remarks. "There is no inherent contradiction between using fiscal policy to support the economy today, while the unemployment rate is high ... and imposing fiscal restraint several years from now, when output and employment will probably be close to their potential."

The conversation in the large hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building underscored what will likely become one of the larger battles of the fall: How can Obama and the Democrats press for more spending and stimulative measures when the group tasked with finding the money to pay for those plans was created under the framework that growing deficits are hurting the economy?

It could prove difficult for the bipartisan group to take Elmendorf's advice to increase the deficit in the short term while shrinking it over time, especially as Democrats fight to protect entitlement spending and Republicans continue their resolve against tax increases.

"It's more than just a spending problem, narrowly defined. ... Many tax expenditures are a form of spending in disguise," said Kerry, just moments after Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), sitting directly to his right on the dais, said, "Clearly, entitlement spending is driving these long-term deficits to impossible levels."

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