MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. On Capitol Hill today, a newly formed congressional supercommittee met for the first time. Its marching orders: come up with a plan by Thanksgiving to shrink the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion. They must then agree on it and make sure that it can pass both the House and the Senate by Christmas. That could prove a tall order for the panel's six Republicans and six Democrats. But as NPR's David Welna reports, none of them likes the alternative, either.
DAVID WELNA: The task at the officially named Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction faces is enormous. Whether it's by cutting more spending, raising taxes or a combination of both, its dozen members have just 10 weeks to reach bipartisan agreement on a plan slashing deficits by more than a trillion dollars. If they don't, by law, that money will automatically be cut equally from defense and nondefense budgets over the next decade. Texas House Republican Jeb Hensarling, who co-chairs the supercommittee, gaveled in today's meeting and vowed to get the job done.
Representative JEB HENSARLING: I will not sit idly by and watch the American dream disappear for my 9-year-old daughter and my 7-year-old son. And I believe that is a sentiment shared by all of my colleagues.
WELNA: And co-chair Patty Murray, a Democratic senator from Washington state, reminded colleagues that neither party has a numerical advantage on the panel, which is why, she said, all must remain open to one another's views and stand ready to compromise.
Senator PATTY MURRAY: That's why I've been so glad that as we have gotten this process off the ground over the last few weeks, committee members have refrained from drawing lines in the sand or carving out areas that can't be touched.
WELNA: The question facing all the panel members is whose ox will be gored to achieve the deficit reductions. House Democrat James Clyburn of South Carolina said the sacrifice must be shared.
Representative JAMES CLYBURN: Any solution to our debt problems must be fair. It is just plain wrong to put all the burden of debt and deficit reduction on the elderly, the middle class and the poor.
WELNA: Like other Democrats on the panel, Montana senator and Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus said more tax revenues had to be on the table.
Senator MAX BAUCUS: We have to include revenues. It's not just spending. It also is revenues.
WELNA: And like other Republicans, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey wants to target safety net programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.
Senator PAT TOOMEY: If we're going to truly meet the challenge that we face, I think we do need to address the big entitlement programs that we all know are driving this fiscal problem. And we all know that's not easy. It's not easy for any of us to do that. We've all got many constituents who rely on these programs.
WELNA: Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the solution is cutting more spending.
Representative DAVE CAMP: The problem we face is obvious. There's too much government spending and too much federal debt, which are impeding our economy's ability to grow.
WELNA: At that point, protesters in the corridor outside the hearing broke out in chants.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Jobs now, jobs now.
WELNA: While the cries of jobs now, jobs now continued, co-chair Hensarling urged his colleagues to proceed.
HENSARLING: The chair believes the American people want to see this committee succeed, so if members perhaps could speak a little bit more loudly than usual.
CAMP: I will try to do that.
WELNA: That call for jobs was echoed by several Democrats on the supercommittee - creating more jobs, they said, is the best way to reduce deficits. Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen said it's time for the panel to get to work.
Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: There are plenty of ideas out there for reducing the deficit that have been thoroughly debated, and we have a menu of options. So I think all of us would agree that if the committee were to fail, and I'm confident it won't, but it would be not for lack of ideas, but for a lack of political will.
WELNA: But cracks are already appearing in the panel's resolve. After the meeting, Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl told a gathering of conservatives he would leave the committee if it cut defense spending. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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