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Republicans on Deficit Panel Meet; Democrats to Talk Wednesday

Republicans on the bipartisan Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction met for several hours Tuesday, taking a quick break from their district work periods to set the foundation for what is shaping up to be weeks of negotiations.

The three House Members and three Senators huddled in the Cannon House Office Building to review previous bipartisan efforts to rein in the debt, including the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which failed last year to formally advance its plan to Congress after nine months of work, as well as agreements reached over the spring among lawmakers who gathered with Vice President Joseph Biden, sources said.

Under a debt ceiling and deficit reduction law enacted at the beginning of August, the bipartisan, bicameral panel must find $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion worth of savings to avoid setting off automatic spending cuts that would put a significant dent in defense spending and Medicare.

Much of Tuesday’s meeting, however, was focused on administrative details and the logistics of the next few months, a task that might seem straightforward at first blush but has plagued recent working groups, including the one guided by Biden.

At the start of the 112th Congress, House Republicans instituted a calendar that does not always sync with the Senate’s schedule, which complicates work between the chambers. For instance, in the four weeks from Oct. 17 to Nov. 14, just days before the supercommittee’s Nov. 23 deadline to release a product, the Senate and House are in session at the same time only four days: Nov. 1 to 4.

Attendees of Tuesday’s meeting were Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), a member of the Biden group; Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio); Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.); House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas); Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.); and Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.). They avoided reporters gathered outside the room by quietly exiting via another door at the conclusion of their meeting.

The Democratic members of the supercommittee are slated to hold a conference call Wednesday afternoon, sources from both chambers confirmed.

Tuesday was the most significant news day for the deficit group since Members were announced three weeks ago. Earlier in the day, Hensarling and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who co-chair the panel, announced that Mark Prater, a top Republican aide on the Senate Finance Committee, will serve as its staff director.

Prater, a 20-year Hill veteran, worked on the 1990 and 1997 budget deals, the latter of which created the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, as well as its bipartisan 2007 reauthorization, which was vetoed by President George W. Bush. The selection drew praise from Members on both sides of the aisle as a sign of seriousness from the panel’s leaders to work toward an agreement.

Sources familiar with Tuesday’s Republican meeting indicated that revenues would continue to be a tough sell for GOP Members, both fundamentally and from a vote-counting perspective. At every phase of the debt negotiations tied to increasing the debt ceiling, Republicans insisted that taxes not be raised in an economic downturn. There is a possibility, sources said, that the panel could broach tax code reform, but time is short and multiple negotiating groups already have failed in that endeavor.

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