By Nicole Gaudiano
WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers, including those from Delaware, is pressing the 12-member debt- reduction supercommittee to "go big" in recommending ways to control the nation's debt.
More than 40 lawmakers crammed a stage at the Capitol Visitor Center during a Wednesday news conference to urge a target of $4 trillion in savings over a decade through mandatory spending cuts and new tax revenue.
The debt-reduction committee is working to come up with a plan by Nov. 23 to save at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. But panel members were still far from an agreement on Wednesday.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said a bipartisan agreement to save $4 trillion would be "the best jobs bill that we could adopt."
"That would send a great signal that we can govern, that we can be fiscally responsible, that we can provide certainty on the tax code in this country," he said in an interview.
Wednesday's rally came at a low point for the supercommittee.
Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a member of the panel, questioned on Wednesday whether Republicans are still interested in negotiating after the committee's GOP co-chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, told CNBC on Tuesday that Republicans have "gone as far as we feel we can go" on agreeing to new tax revenue.
"The question is whether they've kind of said, 'Take it or leave it,' " Van Hollen said.
Hensarling clarified his comments Wednesday afternoon, telling reporters the GOP's offer on taxes wasn't final and could change once Democrats offer proposals to seriously curb Medicare and Medicaid costs, major drivers of the nation's debt woes.
Rep. John Carney, D-Del., said a reasonable path forward for the supercommittee could be an outline for spending cuts and revenue increases, with details to be filled in over time. The best way to get Republican support for revenue increases is through tax reform, and that won't happen in a week, he said. Carney said he would support using tax reform as a way to increase revenue.
"I'm looking for common ground, and that seems to be where there is common ground," he said.
Carney was among 100 House members -- 60 Democrats and 40 Republicans -- who signed a Nov. 2 letter to the supercommittee saying "all options for mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues must be on the table."
Their letter followed a similar statement of principles, signed by 45 senators, that also called on the committee to recommend $4 trillion in savings. Carper and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., signed that statement.
The $4 trillion target has been suggested in other debt-reduction plans over the past year, including those proposed by the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Six" and a presidential debt-reduction commission.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers at Wednesday's news conference said they will support the supercommittee if it takes significant steps to reduce the deficit.
"There may not be an issue of such gravity and magnitude, at least on the domestic side, that any Congress has faced in modern times," Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said. "This is our moment. Let's seize that moment."
If the supercommittee comes up with at least $1.2 trillion in recommended savings by its deadline, Congress will vote on the recommendations without amendments by Dec. 23.
"It will be one of the few good chances we have at reaching a responsible, bold, bipartisan compromise on dealing with the deficit," Coons said during an interview.
Failure to enact the cuts would result in automatic reductions of $1.2 trillion beginning in January 2013. About half those cuts would affect defense programs. Social Security and Medicaid would be exempt, but Medicare reimbursements to doctors and hospitals would be cut as much as 2 percent a year. Farm price supports also would be cut.
Such a failure would reinforce the public's concern that Washington can't govern, Carper said. It also would extend the uncertainty for the business community, which he said is a hindrance to job creation.
Carper noted that the country's credit rating also could suffer if Congress doesn't enact the minimum $1.2 trillion in savings. Standard & Poor's lowered that rating, for the first time, on Aug. 5 over concerns about debt reduction.
"I think there's a very good chance that we'll see our credit rating, which has already been dropped by one agency, dropped by at least two others," Carper said.
But, he said, he hasn't lost hope that supercommittee members can reach agreement. In a survey by his Senate campaign committee, most Delawareans said they want a comprehensive, bipartisan deal, he said.
The poll sought reactions to major components of the plan recommended by the presidential debt-reduction commission, including entitlement reforms, tax reform and $3 in spending cuts for every dollar of new revenue, Carper said.
"There's overwhelming bipartisan support among Democrats, Republicans and independents for that approach," he said.