Updated: 6:59 p.m.
After two public meetings filled with introductory courtesies and little spark, members of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction are now taking their first steps toward real negotiations on how to find at least $1.2 trillion in budgetary savings over the next 10 years.
The 12 members of the bipartisan, bicameral panel are scheduled to meet privately for dinner Thursday night, multiple sources from both parties confirmed. However, a spokesperson for Co-Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) denied there were dinner plans but said the group is working to get together soon.
If they do meet, it will be the first time the full group meets behind closed doors. Details of the gathering's agenda are being closely guarded, but the time could be a valuable relationship builder for the diverse group of lawmakers who were chosen primarily for their loyalty to House and Senate leaders.
Indeed, a partisan aura still hangs over the group. After a public hearing Tuesday during which the panel heard from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf, the panel's six Republican Members huddled privately in the House office suite of committee Co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas). It was the second such meeting of the GOP contingent this month. Democrats also have met at least once behind closed doors to strategize.
Panel member Sen. John Kerry, however, insisted that the committee is getting to its serious business.
"We're beginning negotiating now," the Massachusetts Democrat said. "We're not just going to have hearings and then negotiate. We're going to negotiate now. A lot of discussions are taking place — one-on-one, quietly. Different people are now pulling together, [looking at] different proposals. We're working in a sprint here — a very tight time frame."
The super committee has about 70 days to complete its task of shaving trillions from the federal budget over the next 10 years — a job complicated by President Barack Obama's announcement last week that he would put much of the burden of paying for his proposed jobs plan on the panel. And though leaders would like to have many public hearings so that experts and the public can weigh in on Washington's issue du jour, the panel's schedule is hampered by the fact that hearings must be publicized seven days in advance. Aides to the committee's members say they expect scheduling decisions and announcements to be made soon.
Many close to the nascent negotiations believe that the group's first task will be to review existing options, from the recommendations of last winter's presidential deficit commission to the points of agreement from the spring budget talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden. Parts of those plans may be used to build a beginning framework for the rest of the panel's work.
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."