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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.