'Supercommittee' sounds note of unity, urgency

— -- Members of the congressional "supercommittee" charged with reducing the national debt set a tone of bipartisanship and urgency at the committee's first meeting Thursday.

In opening remarks, the six Democrats and six Republicans spoke of the daunting size of the committee's mandate: reducing the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years — and said they hoped to go even further.

"The needle on the gauge has now entered the red zone," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.

"We need to restore confidence, and we need to do it in a hurry," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

If a committee member responded to another, it was to agree. "I am struck — and I think people in the audience are as well — by the commonality of views" on the panel, said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "I sense an optimism that we can succeed."

Kyl cautioned that it would be "tedious, time-consuming work."

The deadlines are unforgiving. Though a final committee vote is due Nov. 23, the Congressional Budget Office needs time — perhaps weeks — to analyze committee proposals. And members must have 48 hours to review the CBO estimates. Realistically, the committee has until the end of October to put together a plan, Kyl said.

Committee members noted they're not starting entirely from scratch. Several, including Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said they would draw ideas from the litany of failed commission proposals named after those who led them: Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici, Biden-Cantor and the Senate "Gang of Six."

"If this committee doesn't succeed, it won't be for a lack of ideas, but for a lack of political will," Van Hollen said.

The committee's co-chairs — Hensarling and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. — pledged that the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction would be as transparent as any other congressional committee. Its rules, approved Thursday, require all meetings to be open unless the committee votes to make them secret. As Murray pointed out, the traditional definition of "meeting" excludes "less formal party caucuses and working sessions."

Members have already held several closed-door party caucuses. Thursday, instead of sitting by party, the seating chart alternated between Democrats and Republicans. Hensarling ran the first meeting, but he'll switch off the gavel with Murray.

The first open hearing will be next Tuesday, when CBO director Douglas Elmendorf will testify about the history and consequences of the national debt.