Russell Berman and Erik Wasson
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday rejected a proposal by the Democratic members of the congressional supercommittee on debtreduction, declaring its $1.3 trillion in tax increases unacceptable.
A majority of the six Democrats on the 12-member panel privately proposed a package that would cut the deficit by $3 trillion over 10 years, including more than $1 trillion in tax increases.
Boehner said in a press conference that the amount of new revenue was too high.
“This is the same number that was in the president’s budget, the same number that I don’t know if they found any Democrats in the House and Senate to vote for,” Boehner said. “And so, I don’t think it’s a reasonable number.”
The deficit panel must come up with at least $1.2 trillion in budget savings by Nov. 23 to avoid automatic spending cuts that both parties want to avoid.
Members of the panel have given little indication that they have made significant progress in their secretive negotiations, and comments Thursday by Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reflected an increasing sense of urgency about the stalemate.
“I’ve had lots of conversations with lots of people trying to ensure that we do in fact get to an outcome,” Boehner said. “I’m not surprised that we’re having some difficulty, because this isn’t easy. It’s going to be very hard. But I do think it’s time for everybody to get serious about it.”
Pelosi, in a separate news conference, said: “It’s about time for us to see this supercommittee narrow its possibilities and reach an agreement.”
The committee met behind closed doors Thursday morning, and Democratic members held a separate discussion later in the afternoon. The panel has a public hearing scheduled for next week but no more meetings set for this week.
If the committee finds cuts that fall short of the $1.2 trillion minimum, the difference would be made up in automatic cuts, with a significant portion hitting the Pentagon.
Boehner was asked if any level of sequestration was acceptable. “No,” he replied. “I think it’s important for the supercommittee to meet its goal.”
Boehner’s No. 2, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), told The Hill later Thursday that he was “optimistic” the supercommittee would strike a deal. “There’s a way to get this done,” he said.
In a memo assessing the Democratic offer, Boehner’s staff called it “not a serious proposal.”
“Republicans have been willing to discuss new revenues, but this offer is rooted in unacceptable tax increases, which would have a negative impact on the economy and jobs,” the Speaker’s staff wrote, according to a copy obtained by The Hill.
The memo also criticized an additional $200 billion in proposed Pentagon cuts from the Democrats, saying, “Even Secretary [Leon] Panetta says further defense cuts not sustainable.”
Boehner’s office also criticized Democrats for including President Obama’s $447 billion jobs package in their supercommittee proposal.
“The purpose of the Joint Select Committee is to cut spending, not to increase it,” the memo said. “Some of these proposals have already failed and don’t have majority support in the Senate.”
The Speaker refused to rule out supporting any increase in revenue in a final deal. In his failed negotiations with Obama this summer, Boehner offered $800 billion in increased revenues over 10 years in exchange for significant changes to entitlement programs. He said Thursday that conversations all year have revolved around “the same type of structure,” referring to a combination of new revenues and entitlement cuts.
“So I’m not surprised that that structure is still being talked about,” Boehner said.
He said that because of cuts Congress has already enacted to discretionary and defense accounts, he expected that “almost all” of the cuts in the supercommittee’s plan would come from mandatory spending.
Still, he criticized the level of Medicaid cuts in the reported Democratic proposal as insufficient. The Democrats also proposed cuts to Medicare benefits.
Asked to respond to Boehner’s condemnation, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a Democratic supercommittee member, said: “We’ve always said there are two important things we have to accomplish: to get the economy moving and to have jobs, and the second is to have a balanced approach. Any package needs to be judged by that test.”
Boehner made no mention of a counteroffer by Republican members of the panel, which aides said would cut the deficit by $2.2 trillion over a decade and include up to $640 billion in new revenue.
Some of this revenue is from increased user fees, and some is expected gains in tax revenue from an economy the GOP expects will improve from its reform of the tax code.
Spending cuts in the proposal include changes to Medicare, Medicaid and other healthcare entitlements, and $250 billion in discretionary spending cuts.
Democratic aides denounced the proposal as “unserious,” although Van Hollen declined to comment on it.
Earlier Thursday, Pelosi sidestepped questions about the Democratic offer.
“I’m not making any judgment about any package until I see the fuller package that it’s a part of,” Pelosi said.
The dueling offers came as a bipartisan group of House lawmakers was gathering support for a letter that calls for the supercommittee to exceed its charge and come up with between $4 trillion and $6 trillion in savings, said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), who is involved in the effort. LaTourette said organizers had about 100 signatures, nearly evenly split between the parties, and planned to release the letter next Wednesday.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s important that the supercommittee knows there’s a bipartisan group in the House that is behind going big or going home,” LaTourette said. There are currently 45 House Republican signatories, he said, and the goal is to get to 50. “I think the moment’s here for the big deal,” he said.
The effort is being led by Reps. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.).
For Republicans, the commitment to supporting new revenues is the biggest challenge, LaTourette said.
“The word ‘revenue’ is spooking some people. People don’t want a Tea Party primary on our side,” he said.
— Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.