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Deficit Panel Entertains Senators

The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction met yet again Wednesday — this time with members of the Senate’s “gang of six” — as it continues to forge its way through the valley of policy options to find $1.2 trillion of savings over the next 10 years.

After the early-morning full meeting with the bipartisan group of Senators, both Democrats and Republicans on the super committee met separately along party lines to continue to shore up their positions as a Thanksgiving deadline to vote on a final product creeps closer.

As has become routine after all conversations inside the super committee room, lawmakers emerged from the two-hour meeting tight-lipped on details but optimistic about reaching a final agreement.

But time is running short, as pieces of any deal need to be sent to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office for scoring by early next month. The upbeat tone from lawmakers in front of the microphones belies a growing concern that the same disagreements that sunk previous budget groups, including the gang of six, will doom the super committee as well.

“This group is operating in a very serious way, and we had a very serious meeting,” Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the gang of six, said Wednesday. “We very much appreciated the chance to go into significant detail of the conclusions we came to, and I’m optimistic that they’ll do what is really necessary for the country.”

Added Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), another member of the gang of six: “We had a very frank and open discussion with the super committee. We empathize and sympathize with the overwhelming job that these folks have.”

Given that the gang of six has presented its findings multiple times to lawmakers across the Capitol, it’s unlikely their presentations to the committee were mere broad overviews of their months-long negotiations.

It’s possible that the group’s bipartisan Senators, spanning the ideological spectrum from Republican Tom Coburn (Okla.) to Democrat Dick Durbin (Ill.), came before the committee to serve as a reminder that Members from both sides have expressed willingness to deal with both taxes and entitlement reform.

With most accounts from inside the super committee, although vague, indicating that the panel has yet to resolve the major, and basic, issues of whether it can address revenues or costly social safety net programs, perhaps the meeting provided a bit of an energy boost for the panel. At a minimum, it allowed the super committee to check off another box as it works toward creating something that might be palatable for either party to vote on.

As recently as this summer, the gang of six had been shopping its outline to achieve nearly $4 trillion in savings over the next 10 years to large groups of Senators. Although they fell short of serious agreement, they had certainly run the gamut of obstacles.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday about Wednesday’s session with the super committee, Coburn quipped that he could use his time before the panel to set its Members straight.

“I can embarrass the hell out of ’em,” Coburn said.

The mystery cloaking the behind-closed-doors talks, however, has left some outside of the room feeling anything from distraught to optimistic to indifferent.

“I’m hoping for the best but fearing the worst,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said regarding the super committee. Nelson added that there has been “radio silence” from the panel’s members, which could be indicative of progress. But he remains skeptical as he did not vote to create the committee in the first place out of fear that the process of approving its final product would be “convoluted.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has been publicly advocating for increased involvement from Congressional leaders in guiding the super committee to a deal, which he insists would be the best way for the government to help set the economy back on track.

Although almost every major deal brokered in this Congress — from agreements to avoid a government shutdown to deals to avert a default — has been at the White House-leadership level, leaders have so far left the super committee alone to complete its work.

“The super committee is a creation of the leadership. It’s an idea that was spawned by leadership. They appointed the members to the committee — all of which are capable. … Their staffs are working very, very, more than closely with the super committee, so it is,” Corker said of leaders’ responsibility.

He said he will not be concerned about whether the panel has a framework until November because most things in Congress get done at the last minute.

Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) added that leadership involvement with the panel has not been discussed at conference-wide meetings.

“No, it is not discussed, and I don’t have any proof of that, I just assume that any [leadership] appointees will be checking things with [leaders], outlines at least, if not the details of the agreement,” Sessions said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), co-chairmen of the super committee, announced Wednesday afternoon that the panel will hold its third hearing, and fourth public meeting, next week.

On Oct. 26, panel members will meet in the Hart Senate Office Building to discuss “Discretionary Outlays, Security and Non-Security,” with Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf as an expert witness. This will be Elmendorf’s second session of testimony before the panel.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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