Its “not that difficult a task” to reduce the U.S. deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years, according to Rep. James Clyburn, the number three Democrat in the House and a member of the bipartisan debt reduction “supercommittee.”
Clyburn, D-S.C., appeared on ABC News’ Top Line political program after a special deficit reduction hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday and less than a month before the supercommittee is legally required to reach a deficit reduction deal.
But for all the ease of adding spending cuts and tax revenues up to equal such a large figure, the meat of actually agreeing on what to cut and which tax measures to enact has until now stymied the supercommittee and Washington.
The committee is charged with finding ways to get government spending under control without too drastically cutting services that Americans rely on.
“I’m concerned that we could fail,” said Clyburn of the supercommittee, which has until Thanksgiving to reach an agreement that would shave $1.2 trillion in government spending over the next 10 years.
“But I always say, with every possibility of failure is an opportunity to succeed and so I don’t focus on the fact that we might not do it,” he said. “I’m keeping my focus on the fact that we can do this, we should do this and we will do this.”
Members of the committee are trying to find a way to expand their scope from $1.2 trillion to the $4 trillion in deficit reduction recommended to them by separate bipartisan commissions. Shooting for that “grand bargain” has become a test of the committee, even as the clock ticks. If they cannot reach an agreement and pass it though the rest of Congress later in the year, across-the-board spending cuts kick in.
Members of the supercommittee were upbraided Tuesday by Erskine Bowles, the Democrat who co-chaired an earlier deficit reduction panel.
“Collectively, I’m worried you’re going to fail – fail the country,” said Bowles in testimony before the supercommittee. “We didn’t make the $4 trillion number up because the No. 4 bus rode down the street. $4 trillion is not the maximum amount we need to reduce the deficit. It’s not the ideal amount. It is the minimum amount we need to reduce the deficit in order to stabilize the debt.”
Clyburn argued – and Republicans dispute this point – that nearly $1 trillion in cuts already enacted by the bill that created the super committee and $1 trillion in savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bring the super committee halfway to its goal already.
“That alone gives us about $2 trillion,” said Clyburn. “So if we could do $1.4, [$1.]5 [trillion] on this committee, and the savings in interest would get us to $4 trillion. … So that’s not all that hard to do. It will mean that you’ll have to make some cuts in that 1.5 and raise some revenue in that 1.5 in order to make it realistic, but that’s not that difficult a task to get us to $4 trillion in deficit reduction.”
Some Democrats on the supercommittee, led by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., have a proposal to reach the $4 trillion number with about $1.3 trillion in tax revenue, although Republicans on Capitol Hill have said that is too much tax revenue. They want to focus on spending cuts.
Clyburn said that in order to make a bargain work, the supercommittee members have to find a way to increase government revenues without breaking a pledge most Republicans have signed not to raise taxes. He suggested that by ending some deductions, agreement could be reached.
“I do believe though that we can find a way to create additional revenue and do it in such a way that our Republican friends on the committee will be comfortable with it,” he said.
“Yes, it is possible. And we oughta do it. Now, I don’t know if it’s probable,” he said.
Clyburn said he’s not entirely on board with the Democratic proposal.
“It was not a Democratic proposal. Sen. Baucus is a Democrat, he made the proposal and, of course, I’m not on board with that,” said Clyburn.
ABC News asked Clyburn if a deal might be worse, in some ways, than actually letting the supercommittee fail. He suggested the spending cuts enacted by a supercommittee deal could actually be worse in their cuts on Medicaid and Social Security than would letting across-the-board cuts kick in.
“Yes, I am concerned about that,” said Clyburn, pointing to questions he asked Bowles and others during the Capitol Hill hearing on deficit reduction Tuesday. Clyburn said cuts in entitlement spending would be more likely to hurt poorer Americans.
“I asked – if we were to do this with only cuts, what would that mean to those people in that bottom 20 percent as well as those people in the middle (income brackets),” said Clyburn.
“That would be catastrophic,” he said. “It would mean that these people couldn’t get not just the safety nets that they deserved, but the education of their children would be put at jeopardy, and so I am concerned about that, and that’s why I am gonna fight hard to make sure that all cuts are fair and compassionate.”
Clyburn maintains a sunny optimism about the supercommittee.
“The motto of my state – dum spiro spero – is Latin for ‘as I breathe, I hope,’” he said. “I’m a very optimistic person. I am not even thinking about failure.”