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Budget panel hears competing ideas

Upton, Hensarling, Murray, Kyl, Kerry and Toomey meet for the first time for a Joint Deficit Reduction Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in
Upton, Hensarling, Murray, Kyl, Kerry and Toomey meet for the first time for a Joint Deficit Reduction Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in

By Richard Cowan and Donna Smith

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The 12 members of a congressional "super committee" laid out competing visions on Tuesday for how to solve the country's budget ills during the panel's first negotiating session.

"Different members have their ideas of what success looks like. Part of the exchange today was fleshing out some of those opinions," Republican co-chairman Jeb Hensarling told Reuters in an interview following the three-hour meeting.

The six Republicans and six Democrats sequestered themselves in the ornate Library of Congress, across the street from the U.S. Capitol, where they were less likely to be snared into detailed conversations with journalists.

Most of the members refused to talk in detail publicly following Tuesday's meeting. "We're making progress," quipped Democratic Senator Max Baucus.

But progress seemed more difficult with each day amid new warnings that the U.S. economic recovery could be stalling, which could result in a worsening budget deficit picture.

As the talks intensified, the super committee reached out to heads of the regular congressional panels that oversee everything from farm programs to transportation.

"I think that both the Democrats and Republicans are hearing from their committee chairmen and will most likely continue to do so," Hensarling said.

Those panels have until mid-October to present firm ideas to the super committee for spending cuts. The super committee members then will have a couple weeks to put ideas into specific enough form for the Congressional Budget Office to analyze some time in early November.

The bipartisan super committee has a final deadline of November 23 to try for a majority vote in favor of a plan saving at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

The bipartisan special committee was born out of an August deal to raise the U.S. borrowing authority. If it fails to agree on a minimum of $1.2 trillion in savings, a similar amount of automatic spending cuts would be triggered beginning in 2013. Those savings would be divided evenly between domestic and military programs.

The panel is walking a tightrope as it deliberates.

There are deep party divisions over the best way to reduce budget deficits, raising questions over whether it will be able to cut a deal by its Thanksgiving deadline.

Hensarling said the super committee members could find the $1.2 trillion in savings "in our sleep individually, but (it) is quite a challenge to do in a collective bipartisan basis."

There is plenty of pressure to produce, however.

IMF WARNING

The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday revised downward its forecast for U.S. economic growth to 1.5 percent this year and 1.8 percent next year, down from June forecasts of 2.5 percent and 2.7 percent respectively.

The IMF warned that a painfully slow U.S. economic recovery could be threatened if Washington failed to produce a credible plan to cut government borrowing in the medium term.

If it was not enough to have hordes of journalists dogging their every move, lobbyists calling them and the IMF piling on pressure, politicians no less prominent than President Barack Obama and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner are trying to influence them.

On Monday, Obama delivered to the super committee his own, ideas for cutting deficits -- about $3 trillion in savings through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts. The plan was accompanied by a warning: Obama said he would veto any deficit reduction bill that cuts the Medicare healthcare program for the elderly without increasing taxes on wealthier Americans and corporations.

Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, last week drew his own line in the sand: No tax increases.

The super committee is being watched by credit ratings agencies, such as Standard and Poor's, which last month cut the government's coveted AAA bond rating and voiced concern Washington was too divided to tackle its deficit problem.

The agencies want the super committee to go way beyond its minimum requirement of $1.2 trillion in new savings.

Amid all these external pressures, super committee members say they have agreed that clamming up and not negotiating a budget deal in public is the only way to move forward.

(Additional reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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