MICHELE NORRIS, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. On Capitol Hill today, Republicans lambasted President Obama's jobs proposal while Democrats defended it - in other words, business as usual.
But tucked in among the battles of divided government, there was a glimmer of bipartisanship. As NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, it happened at a meeting of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the so-called supercommittee.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Today's hearing in the supercommittee was supposed to be about the history of the current debt crisis. Almost nothing causes more partisan bickering than that. Each party is fervent in its belief of who drove the government into the ditch - namely, the other guys.
But today, somehow, some way, all of that was short-circuited by the man who runs the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Doug Elmendorf. He immediately dispensed with the question of blame and laid out the options for the supercommittee.
DOUG ELMENDORF: Putting the federal budget on a sustainable path will require significant changes in spending policies, significant changes in tax policies or both.
SEABROOK: Elmendorf said the three questions the supercommittee must answer are: How much money is the government going to save, how quickly is it going to do it and in what mix of spending reductions or tax increases? That's it. And he didn't allow the committee to lose focus from those.
At one point, Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl suggested that the government might raise money by tackling Medicare fraud or by selling public lands.
Senator JON KYL: Will you work with us to try to help us identify the potential policy that could result in, on a cost benefit analysis, significant savings if we were to implement it?
ELMENDORF: Yes. We certainly will, but can I just also caution. I'm not against working with you on any issues that you want us to work with you on, but there is no evidence that suggests that this sort of effort can represent a large share of the $1.2 trillion or $1.5 trillion in savings for this committee.
SEABROOK: Trillions with a T, he reminded them. Another argument Elmendorf short-circuited is about timing. Generally these days, Republicans argue Congress should cut spending now to fix the budget. Democrats want to increase spending now to spur growth in the economy. Elmendorf's solution?
ELMENDORF: Cut taxes or increase spending in the near term, but over the medium and longer term, move in the opposite direction and cut spending or raise taxes.
SEABROOK: It may sound like a paradox, he said, but it's not. Elmendorf said he and his colleagues at the CBO believe lawmakers can stimulate the economy now with government spending and lower taxes, then reining it all in later to fix the budget.
That very idea slashes across partisan boundaries. Do what Democrats want, then do what the GOP wants. He even had a solution for Republicans worried that their phase could be put off. Write their part into the law now, Elmendorf said.
ELMENDORF: If specific changes are enacted into law this year, then I think there's a much greater chance that they will take effect when the time comes. Then if what's enacted into law this year is simply a set of objectives for total amounts of spending or total amounts of taxes or other sorts of benchmarks.
SEABROOK: The supercommittee is supposed to write its proposal by Thanksgiving, but Elmendorf warned the members that if they're really serious they'd better get him the details by the beginning of November so that the CBO has a few weeks to crunch the numbers.
So it turns out the supercommittee members might have a superhero at their disposal, a man who can bend steel, or at least the political equivalent, that is if they choose to listen to him. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
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