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'Critical' day for deficit super committee

By Alan Silverleib and Kate Bolduan, CNN
updated 3:15 PM EST, Wed November 16, 2011
Members of the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee hold a hearing October 26 in Washington.
Members of the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee hold a hearing October 26 in Washington.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, insists he is still willing to "look at any offer" from Democrats
  • Hensarling said Tuesday night that Republicans won't yield any further on taxes
  • Two Democrats on the super committee describe Wednesday as a "critical" day for negotiators
  • The super committee has one week left to find at least $1.2 trillion in savings

Washington (CNN) -- Wednesday could prove to be the pivotal day for the congressional deficit reduction super committee as it struggles to reach a deal with only one week to go before its statutory deadline.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington -- two of the panel's six Democrats -- both described the day as "critical."

"We need to find out about whether our Republican colleagues want to continue to negotiate or whether they've drawn a hard line in the sand," Van Hollen said.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, one of the panel's six GOP members, told CNBC Tuesday night that Republicans "have gone as far as we feel we can go" in terms of agreeing to new tax revenues.

"That's the question," Van Hollen said when asked about Hensarling's remarks. "The question is whether they've said 'take it or leave it' and don't want to negotiate."

Hensarling appeared to partially back away from his comments Wednesday afternoon, telling reporters he is "willing to look at any offer." He blasted Democrats, however, for allegedly failing to propose serious reforms to popular but increasingly expensive programs such as Medicare.

"I'm not giving up hope until that stroke of midnight," Hensarling said. But "I'm still waiting for a new offer to be put on the table. ... I'm not going to negotiate against myself."

Republicans have agreed to approximately $250 billion in tax increases over the next decade, according to Hensarling. Democrats insist that is not enough.

At least seven of the panel's 12 members, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, need to agree on savings of at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. If they can do so, Congress will have one month -- until December 23 -- to vote on the deal.

A failure to pass any agreement would result in $1.2 trillion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts starting in 2013, evenly divided between defense and non-defense spending. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Congress this week that such cuts could cripple the American military establishment.

While Democrats have expressed concern about deep cuts in social spending, programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and veterans' benefits would be spared the budget ax.

Despite the apparent unpopularity of the automatic cuts, it is unclear at best whether Congress will be able to find enough middle ground to cobble together an alternative package of savings. Congressional leaders are now weighing in on the process; House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, met behind closed doors Tuesday.

A bipartisan group of congressmen and senators, meanwhile, held a news conference Wednesday morning urging the members of the super committee to "go big" and find a solution that far exceeds the committee's minimum $1.2 trillion goal.

"We must work across the aisle in both houses (of Congress) to get this country on the right track," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives. "We have the greatest chance that we've had in a generation to strike a bold agreement."

"The right thing to do is to go big," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia. "Super committee, we've got your back."

"It's time to go bold. ... It's time to get our nation's fiscal house in order," declared Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska.

Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, argued that a more ambitious package that tackles politically sensitive issues such as tax hikes and entitlement reforms might ultimately be easier for the harshly polarized Congress to pass.

"If we stand together and lock arms together, we can achieve something as a group that no individual can achieve," Durbin said. "This is our chance to step up and make a difference."

Super committee Republicans earlier offered a proposal with $1.4 trillion in deficit reduction, including $500 billion in new revenue partly from capping individual deductions while cutting all six income tax rates by roughly 20%. Under the proposal, the top bracket would fall from 35% to 28%.

Democrats rejected the plan as insufficient, saying it would end up decreasing revenue in the long run by permanently extending tax cuts from the Bush administration that are scheduled to expire at the end of 2012.

Democrats continue to insist that any solution needs to be more balanced among spending cuts, entitlement reforms and increased tax revenue. They also dispute the notion that the GOP blueprint was ever fully flushed out.

"I don't know what the Republican proposal is," Reid claimed Tuesday.

"It's been a long week waiting for a (Democratic) counter-proposal," replied Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Some members of Congress have proposed making it easier to reach a deal by counting as part of the deal the several hundred billion in savings resulting from an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of budget analysts have dismissed the idea, however, calling it a gimmick.

CNN's Ted Barrett, Tom Cohen, Paul Courson, Lisa Desjardins, Xuan Thai, and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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