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Tensions Flare on Deficit Panel

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer insisted Tuesday that any deal on reducing the deficit would have to include agreement on revenues.

Updated: 7:34 p.m.

On the eve of the super committee's first public hearing in more than a month, a three-hour, closed-door meeting Tuesday got especially heated as Democrats presented their suggestions for a deficit reduction agreement.

According to multiple sources, a Democratic Member was presenting a potential plan which one source indicated would achieve the committee's desired budget savings by having tax increases nearly equal spending cuts when Republicans, including Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.), became sharply critical. These sources disputed whether the tough talk from the GOP Members came in the form of questions or statement of opinions, but Members had been asked to pose only clarifying questions in order to avoid partisan displays.

Publicly, Republican leaders have vehemently opposed including any revenue raisers in a deal to reach the committee's goal of reducing the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years, while Democratic leaders have refused to agree to entitlement cuts unless taxes are also on the table. Tuesday's Democratic proposal represented the position of several committee members but not all Democrats on the panel.

When discussions grew in intensity, Co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) tried to rein in his colleagues and soften the debate. Shortly after the presentation and pushback from GOP lawmakers, staffers were asked to leave the room. The incident occurred in the first of two closed-door meetings Tuesday.

Sources indicated that many meetings of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction have been divided into Members-only and staff-inclusive segments, so aides being asked to exit the conference room in the Capitol Visitor Center is not especially noteworthy.

Sources said that the kind of tough exchange described Tuesday is not unusual for the secretive negotiating sessions. But with less than a month until the super committee's deadline, the fact that accounts of its flare-ups are leaking may not bode well for finding an agreement.

Leaving the meeting room Tuesday, Members again declined to outline the nature of their discussions, but some were noticeably tense as they rushed to the exits.

Aides tried to put a positive spin on the recent disagreements among committee members, saying that unearthing ideas that won't build consensus is part of a constructive process of elimination. The panel has been reviewing and cherry-picking provisions from existing proposals, such as ones negotiated by a group led by Vice President Joseph Biden as well as the president's deficit commission. Finding out what might work is just as valuable as what won't, sources indicated.

And that's a premise even Members are willing to go on record as supporting.

"I think the important thing is trying to agree on policies, and then you can figure out the rest," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

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