Sen Patty Murray chats with Sen. Jon Kyl before the first meeting of the congressional… (Mike Theiler, Reuters )
Reporting from Washington — — The first meeting of the super-committee on deficit reduction opened in outwardly bipartisan fashion, with members unanimously approving ground rules as it begins the daunting task of cutting federal deficits by $1.5 trillion by Thanksgiving.
That may be the only uncontested vote the 12-member panel takes in the months ahead.
Skeptics abound as the committee seeks to reach political consensus on bold reforms that other deficit-cutting efforts failed to achieve. The political math is simple: Republicans refuse new taxes, and Democrats are unwilling to cut Medicare and other programs unless new revenue is part of the deal. With six Republicans and six Democrats, the panel could deadlock.
But the committee put its best foot forward at its opening meeting Thursday. Co-chairs Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) entered the hearing room together. It was the first time they had met in person.
Others sat in an alternating pattern of Democrats and Republicans, creating casual moments of bipartisan chitchat. Hensarling chaired the meeting, but the co-chairs will share the responsibility, with Murray scheduled to lead the next one.
"We are here to examine the numbers," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is seen as the panel's elder statesman and bridge builder. "But we're also here to examine our consciences and look beyond narrow considerations of party or ideology to address the broader needs of our nation."
The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was created out of the deal Congress struck in August to raise the nation's debt ceiling. It has until Nov. 23 to agree on a proposal to slash $1.5 trillion over 10 years or mandatory spending cuts to defense and domestic programs will be made starting in 2013.
Both sides want to avoid that outcome. The committee may need to unveil its package by the end of next month to ensure a full public airing of its proposal — a tight timeline, one member said.
"I sense an optimism we can succeed," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and a veteran of past efforts at deficit reduction.
But at a speech later in Washington to members of a conservative forum, Kyl threatened to quit. He said that he would not be part of any agreement that deeply cut the defense budget, his spokesman said.
Several protesters from CodePink, a liberal activist group, greeted the committee with signs reading, "Tax the rich!" and shouts of "Jobs now!"
Deep partisan differences formed a swift undercurrent.
Republicans adhered to their preference for spending cuts and lower taxes to grow the economy out of deficits. "Cutting spending is essential," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).
"This committee must primarily be about saving and reforming social safety net programs," said Hensarling — code for cuts to Medicare and other entitlements. He noted that it "will not be easy."
Democrats spoke indirectly about the need for new taxes, particularly on the wealthy, as proposed in the White House's "balanced approach" to deficit reduction.
"It is just plain wrong to put all the burden of debt and deficit reduction on the elderly, the middle class and the poor," said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat.
Many economists and budget experts have said that a mixed approach of new taxes and budget cuts, as President Obama has proposed, is needed to stem the record deficits. Experts also have warned against sudden cuts that would weaken the already sluggish economy. Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, warned Thursday about cutting too much from the budget in the short term.
"There is ample room for debate about the appropriate size and role for the government in the longer term, but — in the absence of adequate demand from the private sector — a substantial fiscal consolidation in the shorter term could add to the head winds facing economic growth and hiring," Bernanke said in a speech at the Economic Club of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Times staff writer Jim Puzzanghera in Washington contributed to this report.