When Cutting Spending, Panel Encouraged To 'Go Big'

The 12 members of the congressional supercommittee tasked with cutting at least $1.2 trillion from the deficit meet in Washington, D.C. Tuesday. The bipartisan panel is getting pressure to cut even more. This comes as President Obama is asking Congress to fast-track his jobs bill.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

Now, as Bank of America looks at cutting billions from its expenses, the government is tasked with making its own cuts. Today, the 12 members of Congress charged with carving at least $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit meet in Washington. But the so-called supercommittee is getting pressured now to cut even more. This comes as President Obama's asking Congress to fast-track his jobs bill, all amid questions about whether Congress and the president can come together over, well, just about anything.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH: Last night, hundreds of Members of Congress stood on the steps of the Capitol Building...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) God bless America...

KEITH: ...and re-created a moment of unity that became one of the enduring images of 9/11. Democrats stood next to Republicans, and they sang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS AMERICA")

GROUP: (Singing) My home sweet home.

KEITH: But in Washington these days, this kind of unity is hard to find. Yesterday afternoon, for example, President Obama sent his $450 billion American Jobs Act to Congress.

BARACK OBAMA: This is a bill that is based on ideas from both Democrats and Republicans. And this is the bill that Congress needs to pass - no games, no politics, no delays.

KEITH: The president insisted it's fully paid for. Jack Lew, the White House budget director, explains how.

JACK LEW: They're ideas that we have been talking about, for the most part, for some time.

KEITH: These ideas include closing loopholes for corporate jet owners, repealing oil subsidies, and other tax changes that target high-income earners - ideas that have been rejected by Congress before. At a White House press briefing, Lew said they should be considered again.

LEW: In order to invest in jobs and growth, we're going to have to pay for it. And we are going to have to look at quite a few things that we've looked at before and ask the question: Should we do this in order to add to growth and create jobs?

KEITH: The answer from Republican leaders in the House, the real gatekeepers on this bill, appears to be a polite no. Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner said, quote, "It would be fair to say this tax increase on job creators is the kind of proposal both parties have opposed in the past."

GREENE: support for small businesses, trade agreements, reduced bureaucracy. But he said Republicans will not go for the whole thing.

ERIC CANTOR: Over half, I think, of the total dollar amount is so-called stimulus spending. We've been there, done that. The country cannot afford more spending like the stimulus bill. It didn't produce the promised results, and we can do better.

KEITH: It's in this climate that the deficit-cutting supercommittee gets to work. Fred Upton, a Republican Congressman from Michigan, is a member of that committee.

FRED UPTON: The odds are stacked against us. I mean, a trillion-and-a-half dollars, and we've got to come up with it literally in the next six, seven weeks. But there is a real drive to try and do that.

KEITH: There's a drive coming from outside, too, for the committee to cut the deficit by even more. A bipartisan group of some two dozen senators meets tomorrow to consider ways to encourage the committee to think larger. And yesterday, more than 60 former members of congress, economists and business leaders sent a letter to supercommittee members, encouraging them to go big. Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson was one of them.

ALAN SIMPSON FORMER REPUBLICAN SENATOR: One-point-two, frankly, is peanuts, as we used to say in the grandstand, but they're going to have to go for more than that.

KEITH: Supercommittee member Fred Upton says he sees that $1.2 trillion figure as a floor, not a ceiling.

UPTON: For me, I'd like to do more, and I think many of my colleagues are on the same spot.

KEITH: Between now and Thanksgiving, when the committee's plan is due, a whole lot of things will have to be figured out. How big will the deficit reductions be? Will programs like Social Security and Medicare be modified? Will the tax code be overhauled? Will this committee of politicians from opposite sides of the aisle be able to find enough unity to come up with a bipartisan plan?

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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