At Meeting, Supercommittee Shows Little Progress

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The deficit-cutting Supercommittee met Wednesday morning in its first public meeting in more than a month. The group is charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in budget reductions by Nov. 23. If it fails, automatic, across-the-board cuts follow — a consequence that no one in the Capitol wants.

MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Time is running out for the congressional supercommittee. Its 12 members, evenly divide between Democrats and Republicans, have a month left to agree on a plan to shrink deficits by more than a trillion dollars. But they're being pressed to submit their proposals for budget review in just a matter of days. The panel met today in public for the first time in weeks.

And as NPR's David Welna reports, there were few signs of progress.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As co-chair of the supercommittee, Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, gaveled in today's hearing with a progress report of sorts. She said the panel has worked hard over the past week to find common ground and come up with what she called a balanced and bipartisan plan that the committee and then the entire Congress can pass.

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: We aren't there yet. But I am confident that we are making progress. And I'm hopeful that we are moving quickly enough to meet our rapidly approaching deadline.

WELNA: Further cuts in discretionary spending - the roughly one half of the budget Congress has a say over - was the topic of today's hearing. Congressional Budget Office director, Douglas Elmendorf, was the sole witness. Murray pointed out to him that demand for goods and services has been weak. And she used a question to have Elmendorf make the point that now may not be the best time to cut back on spending.

MURRAY: How does the reduction in government spending generally affect demand on the economy and during an economic downturn?

DOUGLAS ELMENDORF: Reduction in government spending will generally reduce the demand for goods and services, either because the government is buying less itself or because it's providing lower transfers to individuals to purchase goods themselves.

WELNA: Yesterday, in a closed-door session, Republicans on the supercommittee rejected a proposal from some Democrats on the panel to cut deficits by $3 trillion. That's because half those savings would come from increased tax revenues. Republicans did like the part of the Democrats' plan that would cut half a trillion from Medicare and Medicaid.

Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman declared today that such entitlement spending has to be cut.

SENATOR ROB PORTMAN: It's gone from roughly 25 percent of our budget in the 1960s to over 50 percent today. If we don't get at that, the largest part and the fastest-growing part of the budget we will, of course, not have accomplished our goal.

WELNA: at the same time, the supercommittee was meeting, House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon was holding a hearing on the implications of further cuts in defense spending. Like many other Republicans, McKeon believes now is not the time to trim military outlays.

REPRESENTATIVE BUCK MCKEON: We don't spend money on defense to create jobs. But defense cuts are certainly a path to job loss.

WELNA: Meanwhile, at the supercommittee hearing, an unidentified woman who said she was speaking for the 99 percent interrupted the proceedings.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is just trying to confuse the issue...

MURRAY: The chair wishes to remind all of our guests that...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...that the majority of the public wants you to tax the rich, end the wars. We spend more on...

MURRAY: I would request that the Capitol Police restore order.

WELNA: The woman was escorted out by police at co-chair Murray's request, but the protestor's call to tax the rich seemed to resonate with Democrats on the panel. South Carolina Representative James Clyburn asked CBO Director Elmendorf about reports just issued by the CBO that finds the earnings of the wealthiest 1 percent nearly quadrupled over the last three decades.

REPRESENTATIVE JAMES CLYBURN: If we continue current policy, then it's fair to say that we are going to experience that kind of continued widening of the wealth gap in America.

ELMENDORF: Our projections do incorporate some ongoing widening of the income distribution.

WELNA: Elmendorf was later asked by House Republican Fred Upton of Michigan what the real due date is for the panel to get its work done. Elmendorf said the CBO would need weeks to evaluate that work.

ELMENDORF: And backing up from Thanksgiving, that left us looking at the beginning of November, which we are very aware - as you are, Congressman - is not very far away.

WELNA: It was perhaps the only point everyone could agree on.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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