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Super Committee Considers Spending Cuts, Tax Hikes as Deadline Looms

October 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
With its Thanksgiving deadline drawing ever closer, the congressional deficit "super committee" held a rare public hearing Wednesday over its debt negotiations, but there have been few signs of progress in the members' efforts to cut more than $1 trillion from the federal budget. Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to Capitol Hill.

There have been few clear signs of progress in the so-called super committee’s efforts to cut more than a trillion dollars from the budget. But the clock continues to tick.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: With a Thanksgiving deadline drawing ever closer, the deficit super committee held its first public session in a month.

But Republican Congressman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a committee co-chair, made clear just how tough the job is.

REP. JEB HENSARLING, R-Texas: The challenge before us remains that we must find quality health care solutions, quality retirement security solutions for our nation at a cost that doesn’t compromise our national security, doesn’t compromise job growth in our economy, and doesn’t mortgage our children’s future.

KWAME HOLMAN: The day’s most significant development may have come from behind closed doors. It was widely reported that committee Democrats have proposed $2.5 trillion to $3 trillion in deficit reductions over 10 years, through a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.

They would include between $200 billion and $300 billion in new stimulus spending. And at least $400 billion in Medicare entitlement savings, half from benefit cuts, the other half in cuts to health care providers. The issue of what to do about entitlements like Medicare was fodder at today’s hearing for the head of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf.

DOUGLAS ELMENDORF, Congressional Budget Office: Entitlement programs, mandatory spending, is a growing share of federal outlays, in some cases growing rather rapidly. And without addressing that path of spending, it would be extremely difficult to put the budget on a sustainable path.

KWAME HOLMAN: But outside the hearing, Democrats at a Capitol rally underscored the political risk of any changes to Medicare.

REP. JOHN CONYERS, D-Mich.: Hands off Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois said there are ways to save money without cutting benefits.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY, D-Ill.: People during their working lives put money into Medicare. All of that comes out of there, Social Security benefit, the premium for Medicare. Plus, they pay co-payments. The very idea that we wouldn’t touch a hair on the head of millionaires or billionaires and yet cut benefits for older Americans is really a moral issue.

KWAME HOLMAN: In all, the committee is supposed to find at least $1.5 trillion in deficit savings over 10 years and make its recommendation by Nov. 23 for an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate.

Failure to propose a deal, or to win congressional approval will trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts. Half of those cuts would come in defense spending.

But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned against any such mandate at a Senate hearing last month.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: If we pull that trigger, would we be shooting ourselves in the foot?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: We would be shooting ourselves in the head.

KWAME HOLMAN: The super committee was created as part of last summer’s debt ceiling compromise to avoid a government default. In its two-month existence, committee members have chosen to keep their negotiations behind closed doors. That’s led to uneasiness about where the committee will come out on spending cuts and revenues and even whether it can reach a deal at all.

Congressman Cliff Stearns is a Republican from Florida.

REP. CLIFF STEARNS, R-Fla.: I understand that they’re trying to meet recently to try and come up with a solution, but I’m a little bit pessimistic, because it’s taken so long.

KWAME HOLMAN: While analyst Norm Ornstein, at the American Enterprise Institute, is more optimistic.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: We have got two potential deals here. One is they do what their mandate is. That’s about $1.2 trillion in budget cuts. Another is they go for the stars, a $4 trillion overall grand bargain.

KWAME HOLMAN: Whatever the figure, Ornstein says the two parties have to make some progress now, even if the final bargaining goes down to the wire.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: This is an endgame. Endgame negotiations go right to the end. That’s Nov. 23.

But you can’t wait to do all the details. If you’re going to do some kind of significant deficit reduction plan, you have got to get a lot of it in place, and then cut your deal, if you can reach one, right at the 11th hour.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the meantime, the committee will continue behind-the-scenes negotiations. Its next public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 1.