The Supercommittee Meets: Niceties, Shouting, and Business as Usual

The new deficit panel met for the first time, and, unlike the protesters outside, members seemed willing to compromise. So far, so good.

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Updated at 6:18 p.m.

"Jobs!" "Now!" "Jobs!" "Now!"

Ah, the sounds of compromise. After about twenty minutes of conciliatory opening statements offered in a large hearing room at the Rayburn House Office Building on Wednesday, the first official meeting of the new deficit "supercommittee," charged with reducing the national debt by $1.5 trillion, had the makings of a non-event. Microphones had failed, and the tone of the proceedings was business-as-usual, muffled, and low-key.

But as the as the mild Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) delivered his prepared statement in a low voice that was hard to hear anyway, about 15 protesters started shouting just outside the hearing-room door. For 10 minutes, the only audible sounds were "What do we want?!" Jobs!" When do we want them?!" "Now!" "Jobs!" "Now!" "Jobs!" "Now!"

Camp stopped talking, his droopy face turned blankly toward the door. A few CODEPINK members, the typically raucous instigators of Capitol-Hill peace disturbances since the early days of the Iraq war, had sat quietly in the center of the room. They got up and shuffled curiously out of the room. A few reporters followed, one by one.

"Please--" Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the committee co-chair said. "--Shut the door." Harried staffers in blue suits and crew cuts shoved against the big wooden door panels, to no avail. It bounced back against them, jammed ajar by a cluster of big rubber TV cables duct-taped to the marble floor, a byproduct of HD broadcast. ("It's never a problem if we don't have protests outside," a committee aide would later remark after it was all over.)

"Poor Camp," one reporter offered. Indeed. The soft-voiced, thin-haired representative might be a good prospect for a compromise vote, if the 12-member panel is to agree on anything by Nov. 23. Congress demanded, in the law that saved America from defaulting on its debt, that the committee must vote by that date on a package to shrink the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years--by whatever line-item cuts, entitlement reforms, taxes, or dark magic it can invent--otherwise across-the-board spending cuts of $1.2 trillion will take effect.

Camp continued on in futility.

Finally, the staff director for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), a bemused and flustered guy named Russell Sullivan, threw his heft against the door from the outside, wedging it almost closed so his boss could deliver a prepared statement in relative peace. Sullivan spread his arms out across the big wooden panels, body-blocking reporters and citizen-attendees from entering or leaving.

A protest organizer, 23-year-old Valerie Bachelor, told me between shouts that the demonstrators hailed form the group Our DC, made up primarily by members of Washington's 8th Ward, which had canvassed in May against Republican congressmen in Virginia.

"Do you want to get arrested! Then move to the perimeter!" a blue-jacketed Capitol Police officer shouted at a few people clustered near Sullivan under the tall doorframe. Police eventually shooed away the protesters, after 10 minutes of relative mayhem.

Things had been going pretty well before that.

The committee's members, few of them partisan firebrands, had sounded serious and willing to cooperate. Then again, what are we to expect from their very first opening remarks?

"The task of bipartisan deficit reduction won't be easy, but it's essential," Hensarling said at the hearing's outset.

"We can still come together, put politics aside, and solve the problem that's plaguing our country," offered Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the committee's other co-chair, who will take turns leading the meetings with Hensarling.

"None of us sitting here are so important or so permanent that we can ignore the demands of history or the demands of the moment," Sen. John Kerry (R-Mass.) reminded everyone.

After about 45 minutes of meeting time, the panel unanimously approved a noncontroversial list of rules, including requirements that approved proposals be posted online and that, "to the maximum extent possible," audio and video of hearings should be provided to the public. It was nothing out of the ordinary.

To anyone hoping for compromise, Wednesday offered a few promising signs. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who spent the last several years lobbying in Washington for a free-market agenda as leader of the influential Club for Growth, mentioned that "When huge iconic corporations pay no taxes at all, that's just indefensible ... I think we ought to wipe out those special-interest favors." Not something you'd expect from one of the nation's leading anti-tax, pro-business crusaders.

"I've always said that if the distance between me and an opponent is five steps, I don't mind taking three of them," said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a House Democratic leadership member who has blasted the GOP fiscal agenda more than once this year. Clyburn and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) chatted amiably under their breaths, off-mic, while other members spoke.

More than one member, including Kerry, said the committee should strive to reduce the deficit by more than its $1.5 trillion mandate. Don't be surprised if members offer plans to do just that--even if it's a ploy to goad the other side into accepting concessions. "The critical terms" in Congress's mandate to the supercommittee, Kerry said, are that it must trim the deficit by "at least" $1.5 trillion and "significantly affect" the nation's fiscal imbalance.

The real question, now, is whether members can work together behind the scenes, where deals either will or won't be reached on specific ideas.

"It's pretty general now," Kerry told me after the meeting, about the level of specifics being discussed by committee members off stage. But members are talking, he said. Van Hollen wouldn't talk details about whether he's made plans to meet with any Republicans on the panel.

Next Tuesday, the committee will reconvene to hear testimony from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf, who will have to score the supercommittee's final proposal as meeting the $1.5 trillion requirement, for such a plan to move forward. As always, when a witness enters the room and when lawmakers get time to question him, the potential for grandstanding grows exponentially.

If these 12 lawmakers agree on something, anything, that meets the $1.5 trillion standard, Congress will have to vote on their plan by Dec. 23--two days before Christmas.

Just in time for another last-minute stalemate in Washington.

Image credit: Mark Theiler/Reuters