WASHINGTON -- Despite a combined 28 years in Congress, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State and Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas didn't know each other before being chosen in August to lead Congress' 12-member "supercommittee" — the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.
Now they have 10 weeks to produce a plan that cuts at least $1.2 trillion from federal budget deficits over a decade, and possibly much more. If approved by Congress and signed by President Obama, it would be an unprecedented amount.
Murray, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Hensarling, who chairs the House Republican Conference, sat side-by-side in the Texan's Capitol office for their first joint interview Wednesday.
Q: How do you keep the committee process on a bipartisan keel?
Murray: Here in Congress, people matter, and how you work with people matters on whether you can get to an endgame. And I feel really good about the ability for Jeb and I to have some pretty open, honest and forthright discussions that I hope will get us there.
Hensarling: If it's not bipartisan, it fails. I mean, that's the way the whole committee was designed. … Like any other negotiation, we have got to search for common ground. I don't expect the final product to include everything I want.
Q: Do you feel getting a bipartisan agreement is imperative, because of what the public expects and to avoid automatic budget cuts?
Hensarling: (Automatic cuts are) kind of like a hammer in the closet. It hammers some constituencies I don't want hammered, and it hammers, I assume, some constituencies that Patty doesn't want hammered. So it's certainly an incentive.
Murray: And they will get a decision that isn't a thoughtful, pragmatic approach.
Hensarling: I really want to agree with Patty. There's a smart way of doing this, and there's a not-so-smart way of doing this.
Q: Did President Obama's $447 billion jobs plan just make your task a lot harder?
Murray: Our task was hard to start with. … We're not drawing any lines in the sand on this committee. We're not putting anything off the table. We are trying to figure out where the areas of common agreement are.
Hensarling: If you add almost half a trillion dollars to that task … yeah, I would argue it made a difficult task more difficult.
Q:Would it be your goal to try to get a unanimous decision, rather than seven to five?
Hensarling: You know, whether you beat the other team 42 to zero or 24-23, it's still a victory.
Murray: I was wondering when sports would come into this.
Q: If the focus is on future generations and how much debt we'll lay on them, does every member have to be willing to be disappointed?
Murray: Jeb and I somehow got elected to Congress at a time when some of the most serious considerations for the future are in our lap. … I see success as bringing some confidence back to the American people that despite our differences, we can find some ways to move that forward. I don't think this is a time when we can think about elections.
Hensarling: We can't look into the hearts and souls of all of our colleagues, but I hope most would conclude that we do have a legitimate debt crisis, and the status quo is not only unsustainable, but in many respects the status quo is immoral — borrowing 42 cents on the dollar, much of it from the Chinese, and sending the bill to my children and grandchildren.