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Debt committee gathers for its first meeting to set ground rules

By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / September 9, 2011

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WASHINGTON - A special congressional committee charged with reducing the growth of the federal debt by $1.5 trillion gathered for the first time yesterday, a largely ceremonial meeting that was big on displays of unity and commitment amid intense pressure to reach a bipartisan agreement.

The meeting, which lasted about an hour, was called to set rules for the committee, but it also allowed the 12 members to make opening statements about the committee’s goal and direction.

“I’m convinced there’s a bipartisan consensus just waiting if the 12 of us are willing to sit down, forge it, and make it real. That is our mission, that is our charge, and I look forward to getting to work,’’ said Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.

About 25 minutes into the hearing, a noisy protest broke out in the lobby outside the chamber, with demonstrators chanting: “What do we want? Jobs!’’ The committee’s GOP co-chairman, Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, briefly halted the proceedings, and the protest continued outside for several minutes.

Hensarling in his opening comments called the national debt a “sword of Damocles’’ that threatens the nation’s future and security.

“I will not sit idly by and watch the American dream disappear,’’ Hensarling said.

There were few notes of discord or points of disagreement during the meeting. Still, some members signaled their political directions, such as when Senator Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, called for a response that includes tax reform and changes to entitlement programs. Similarly, Representative James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, said a plan should not overburden the elderly, the poor, and middle-class families.

After the meeting, Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican and a member of the GOP leadership team, said he would not support a plan that pursued more Pentagon cuts.

The committee’s job represents part of a two-step process for reducing the nation’s debt. Congress must initially make cuts totaling about $1 trillion over a decade, including $350 billion from the military. The committee must then come up with a plan by Thanksgiving to cut another $1.5 trillion. If Congress doesn’t approve the plan by December, automatic cuts totaling $1.2 trillion go into effect.

Before the committee met, a group of GOP lawmakers complained that some of the committee’s preliminary work had been carried out behind closed doors, and it urged passage of legislation that would require both transparency to meetings as well as immediate disclosure of campaign contributions that committee members receive.

“We do not get a better result for the people of this country when things are done behind closed doors,’’ said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican. “The American people deserve to know what is happening in this committee, particularly when it is a process that is outside of the norm.’’

Theo Emery can be reached at temery@globe.com.