Panel To Take First Steps Toward Deficit Reduction

As Congress returns to work, so do questions about the supercommittee. That's the panel created last month to avert a government default by promising a dramatic deficit reduction plan by Thanksgiving.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

Labor Day is over and it's back to school, back to work, back to real life, and that includes for Congress. Lawmakers returned to Washington this week after their August recess. The biggest task on their agenda falls on just a dozen members, the supercommittee. That's the group charged with the unenviable task of convincing hard partisans to sheath their swords and work out a compromise solution to the nation's budget woes.

NPR's congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook joins us now to explain how all of this will work.

Andrea, good morning.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So the supercommittee's first meeting is this week. Washington has been waiting for this moment. Just remind us, if you can, who's on the panel and what exactly they have to do.

SEABROOK: The committee has six members from the House, three of them from each party; and six members from the Senate, three of them from each party. Its co-chairs are a Texas Republican, Congressman Jeb Hensarling, and Washington Democratic Senator Patty Murray. They're both hard fighters for their respective parties.

Some of the other members of the committee are dealmakers, some of whom have been in Washington a long time and have proved themselves to be intent on getting things done. Their job is to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in savings to the federal budget over the next 10 years. The real goal is 1.5 trillion, but by law they are tasked with finding 1.2 trillion.

GREENE: If they don't reach the magic number you just mentioned - the $1.2 trillion in savings - I understand this process called sequestration kicks in.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

GREENE: That's a nice Washington term. Explain what that means.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Usually these days we've heard a sequestration in terms of carbon, trying to keep the levels of carbon down in the environment. Sequestration here means keeping the level of the budget down by force. Kind of like going across the federal budget over the next 10 years and pushing down the numbers by force. So it would attack military spending especially, spending on the environment, agriculture, everything. Almost every sacred cow here is slashed by tens of billions of dollars across the federal budget.

GREENE: And those things would happen automatically if they don't get this done.

SEABROOK: Exactly. This is the Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of lawmakers. If they don't find those cuts in some kind of compromise, this happens. And nobody wants sequestration to happen, seriously. Almost nobody wants it to happen.

GREENE: What does it say about Washington if we're at a point where there have to be these big, terrible consequences that, you know, hurt both sides of the aisle if, you know, Congress doesn't get the job done that they're supposed to?

SEABROOK: Well, you're right, exactly. I mean remember, it was the government shutdown in the spring that was threatened if there weren't budget cuts. And then there was default, we thought the government would default on its debts if we didn't get the budget cuts done. And now it's sequestration that'll happen, and so that sort of makes - saves the economic system from collapse...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: ...if Congress doesn't get its work done. But you know, it does -it's divided government and nothing gets done unless it has to.

GREENE: We've talked all about these budget cuts. Another way of fixing a deficit is by raising taxes. Has the political environment changed at all to make that a possibility?

SEABROOK: You know, you've just put the finger on the big debate that will happen in the supercommittee. There are a lot of people, and not all of them are Democrats, who believes that there has to be some combination of raising revenue in order to save money in the budget over the next 10 years. And that could mean increases in taxes. It could be shifting around the tax code.

But that, you know, that will be one of the big questions in the supercommittee, because at the same time there are a lot of Republicans especially who do not want to see that at all.

GREENE: Well, the era of the supercommittee begins this week. And NPR's congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook will be watching closely.

Andrea, thank you.

SEABROOK: Thank you, David.

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