Leaders of deficit panel say public's confidence at stake

WASHINGTON -- The leaders of a bipartisan congressional committee charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over the next decade say Americans' confidence in Washington hinges on their success.

In their first joint interview Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, cast their mission as crucial — not just for the nation's finances, but for their constituents' faith in government.

"I don't see this as a party issue," said Murray, who like Hensarling is a member of her party's leadership team. "I see success as bringing some confidence back to the American people that despite our differences, we can find some ways to move forward."

Seated side by side in Hensarling's Capitol hideaway office, the customarily partisan politicians called each other "Jeb" and "Patty" and interrupted frequently to agree with the other's comments. Despite their years in Congress — Murray for 19 years, Hensarling for nine — they had not spoken to each other until getting their challenging new assignments.

Now the unlikely duo is tasked with leading a 12-member panel evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate. The panel is supposed to recommend at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by Thanksgiving, for Congress to vote on by Christmas.

"For the sake of the country, we're taking a chance. We're trusting each other," Hensarling said. "I think we have convinced each other that we both want this thing to succeed."

The more optimistic goal is $1.5 trillion, on top of more than $900 billion in spending cuts already approved last month. President Obama's jobs plan would add an additional $450 billion that would need to be cut. Some lawmakers, citing the nation's $14.7 trillion debt, want to find far more.

If the committee deadlocks or otherwise fails, $1.2 trillion still would be cut automatically from future deficits, divided between defense and domestic spending, including Medicare. Hensarling likened that threat to "a hammer in the closet."

"It's not like the American people aren't going to get the deficit reduction, but what they're going to lose out on is any confidence that Washington can really govern on a bipartisan basis," he said.

Despite their obvious efforts to cooperate, the two lawmakers chosen by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to lead the so-called "super-committee" didn't shy from expressing some differences:

•Hensarling stuck to Republicans' assertion that "the problem is on the spending side" and said he's opposed to raising taxes. He also disagreed with Obama's $447 billion plan to create jobs, which he said "made a difficult task more difficult" and should be "a separate debate."

•Murray declined to blame the president for adding to the panel's burden. "Our task was hard to start with," she said. "People are really worried about their jobs. That's what everybody talks to me about today."

Both lawmakers peppered their comments with what they heard back home during the August recess — constituents imploring them to work together and make progress after 2½ years of partisan bickering.

"I get the, you know, 'In my generation, we all had victory gardens, we all participated in this country's success,'" Murray said. "It's that kind of sentiment that I hear from everybody, that we're all in together."