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Blue Dog Democrats urge the deficit panel to think big

By the CNN Wire Staff
Rep. Kurt Schrader is among the Blue Dog Democrats encouraging the deficit panel to "go big."
Rep. Kurt Schrader is among the Blue Dog Democrats encouraging the deficit panel to "go big."
  • Conservative House Democrats question if the deficit committee can overcome politics
  • The committee has a November 23 deadline to agree on deficit reduction steps
  • A House resolution disapproves of raising the debt ceiling
  • The Senate blocked a similar resolution last week, ensuring its defeat

Washington (CNN) -- Calls for a special congressional committee to work out a comprehensive deficit reduction deal increased Wednesday, with a group of fiscally conservative House Democrats sending the panel a letter encouraging its members to "go big."

The letter from the 25-member Blue Dog Coalition urged the 12 members of the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to work for an agreement that far exceeds the $1.5 trillion target set in last month's debt-ceiling deal that created the special panel.

"If you just do what you've been legislated to do, it's not going to cut the mustard, it's not going to be nearly enough," Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, said at a news conference. "You have to go big."

The panel has until November 23 to draft a $1.5 trillion deficit reduction plan that can win congressional approval by December 23. Otherwise, more than $1 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts will go into effect, on top of $900 billion in cuts already mandated under the debt ceiling deal.

Under the legislation that created 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 -- which cannot be amended -- would then need a simple majority in each chamber of Congress to make it to President Barack Obama's desk.

"I think we all need to pray for a miracle -- that one or more of them is willing to consider the argument on the other side and do the right thing," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee.

Another Blue Dog, Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas, told reporters it is time for legislators to focus on the problem at hand instead of worrying about next year's election.

"Our concern and the reason for our letter is because of the political makeup of the folks on the committee, we're concerned that they're going to take their orders from their national party leaders and not really sit down and call a time out on the 2012 elections like we're asking them to do," Ross said.

Earlier this week, a group of more than 60 fiscal experts, former Treasury secretaries and former legislators also sent a letter to the committee that urged members to "go big" and develop a "large-scale debt reduction package sufficient to stabilize the debt as a share of the economy."

Some of the panel members have echoed that sentiment, and on Tuesday, so did House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

"I've always believed that we should tackle as much of our debt problem as is possible," said Boehner, R-Ohio, who failed twice to negotiate a larger deficit deal with the president earlier this year. "... I've always believed it would be easier to get the votes if in fact we got a big deal."

Hoyer, D-Maryland, called for the deficit committee to more than double its targeted deficit reduction.

"Our target ought to be in the $4 trillion-plus category, not $1.5 trillion," Hoyer said. "That will require courage."

However, the co-chair of the deficit committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has endorsed a more limited approach to the panel's work, and the question of how comprehensive a final deal can be appears to divide mostly along party lines.

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.

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

The same partisan divisions still exist, though the White House and some lawmakers say they hope pressure for a deal exerted by an increasingly frustrated and angry public will create a climate for compromise.

With economic recovery slowed, unemployment high and a re-election campaign starting, Obama is trying to spur growth now while getting Congress to pass a long-term plan to reduce budget deficits and the national debt.

The president wants the committee to expand its $1.5 trillion target to also pay for his freshly unveiled $447 billion jobs plan. Obama continues to seek a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction that would take a comprehensive approach by reforming the tax code and entitlement programs to raise revenue, cut costs and lower spending.

On Tuesday, the director of the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office told the committee that achieving "a short-term economic boost and longer-term fiscal sustainability" would require a combination of policies that would change taxes and spending to widen the deficit now and narrow it later this decade.

Republicans, however, are pushing for a strategy that shrinks the size of government through spending cuts, deregulation, entitlement reforms and tax cuts. In particular, increasing the deficit in any manner is opposed by tea party conservatives, who have exerted their influence on Republican politics for the past two years.

In the latest demonstration of that posture, a House resolution expressing disapproval of increasing the nation's debt limit passed Wednesday due to overwhelming support from the Republican majority. The Senate blocked consideration of a similar measure last week, giving it no chance of passing Congress.

The resolution was part of the debt ceiling agreement under a compromise that gave Obama the power to increase the debt ceiling but provided Congress with a mechanism to register disapproval.

CNN's Deirdre Walsh and Tom Cohen and CNNMoney's Jeanne Sahadi contributed to this report.