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Special deficit committee holds its first meeting Thursday

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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Debt committee ready to get to work
  • The panel has a November 23 deadline to agree on $1.5 trillion in deficit-reduction steps
  • Hostile political environment raises doubts about the panel's ability to succeed
  • "Failure is not an option," the Senate Republican leader says

Washington (CNN) -- Unable to reach agreement on long-range steps for reducing the nation's mounting budget deficits and national debt, the president and Congress turned over the task to a special committee set up under last month's debt-ceiling agreement.

On Thursday, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction will hold its first meeting, facing a 76-day deadline to come up with a deficit reduction plan totaling $1.5 trillion that can win congressional approval.

If the 12-member bipartisan panel of six Democrats and six Republicans from the House and Senate fails to reach agreement by November 23, or if their proposal fails to get passed by Congress by December 23, deep spending cuts will get triggered throughout the government, including the military.

The trigger mechanism would come on top of $900 billion in spending cuts already launched by the debt-ceiling agreement, providing what President Barack Obama and congressional leaders hope will be overwhelming motivation to reach a deal to avoid it.

However, the hostile political environment in Washington between Democrats and Republicans has raised doubts that the committee can achieve success after months of rancorous negotiations this year on the debt-ceiling issue that flirted with bringing a government default.

National opinion polls show significant public dissatisfaction with Congress, especially Republicans, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that he expected a cooperative spirit after legislators heard such criticism from constituents during their summer recess.

The top Republican in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, projected optimism Wednesday, telling reporters that "failure is not an option."

"The committee is structured to succeed," McConnell said. "We have put very serious people on there who are interested in getting an outcome for the country. And we fully anticipate they will meet their goals. And we'll see whether they can even go beyond that, but we certainly know that they will meet their goals."

His Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said he was happy for such positive comments from congressional leaders and added he would not "micromanage" his three selections for the panel.

The committee co-chairs are Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and the panel's participants generally tend to hew to party lines. Other Democratic members are Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Max Baucus of Montana, and Reps. James Clyburn of South Carolina, Xavier Becerra of California and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, while the rest of the Republican lineup includes Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio, and Reps. Dave Camp and Fred Upton, both of Michigan.

Under the legislation creating the committee, a simple majority on the panel -- seven of 12 members -- is needed to approve whatever package it comes up with, meaning that it will take a lone member of either party to push something through by voting with the other side.

The committee's proposal would then need a simple majority in each chamber of Congress to make it to Obama's desk.

So far, committee members have reviewed deficit reduction work of the past few years, when a deficit reduction commission appointed by Obama and a group of six U.S. senators came up with similar plans calling for spending cuts, tax reform and changes to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Obama also will make recommendations to the committee, White House officials have said.

Months of rancorous negotiations on deficit reduction have failed to resolve a fundamental dispute between Republicans and Democrats involving the size of government and whether to raise revenue while cutting spending.

Obama is pushing for a comprehensive plan that includes spending cuts, increased tax revenue and entitlement reforms, while Republicans seek to shrink government by proposing spending cuts and entitlement reforms without increased taxes.

An impasse over the tax revenue issue led to the debt-ceiling agreement, which imposed the initial round of spending cuts and set up the special committee to work out further deficit reduction. The agreement also enables the federal debt ceiling to be increased through 2012, allowing the government to borrow what it needs to meet its obligations.

The brinkmanship of the negotiations, with uncertainty over whether the government might default if no deal is reached, was one reason that ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA-plus earlier this month.