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Lawmakers advise supercommittee to be cautious

Alan Fram And Mary Clare Jalonick

Congress flooded its supercommittee with a jumble of advice Thursday about taming the government's out-of-control debt, with top agriculture lawmakers readying a bipartisan plan to pare food and farm aid while others urged an aggressive hunt for savings coupled with warnings against cutting cherished programs.

Most of the suggestions came from Democrats on 16 Republican-run House committees who sent letters to the special debt-cutting panel. Generally, their advice was to create jobs, raise revenue and avoid damaging cuts to public works, health care and other programs they said are crucial to an economic recovery.

House Democrats are "firmly committed to a deficit reduction plan that is big, bold and balanced," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in her own letter to the supercommittee. She said significant revenues must be part of the recipe and added, "Creating jobs is the most effective way to reduce the deficit."

In an atypical show of unity, Democrats and Republicans who lead the House and Senate Agriculture committees planned to propose $23 billion in 10-year savings, said Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Senate Agriculture panel's top Republican.

The savings likely would come in part from trimming food stamps and other nutrition programs by $4 billion, said another lawmaker who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal still private details. In addition, direct subsidies to farmers, which are paid regardless of crop prices or production, would be eliminated.

With Congress due to consider a five-year farm bill next year, the proposal is aimed at heading off potentially deeper reductions.

Generally, Republicans have said the supercommittee should focus more directly on shrinking the debt than on creating jobs. But with the relentlessly high unemployment rate a top national concern, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., acknowledged this week that the panel will likely consider some ideas for creating jobs.

Senate Republicans have written a bill they say would create jobs by reworking the tax code, cutting federal regulations and easing restrictions on offshore oil exploration.

The letters were striking for the consistency with which many defended programs that each committee oversees. Democrats from the House Foreign Affairs Committee argued that foreign aid, which accounts for about 1 percent of the federal budget, already has borne a disproportionate share of cuts. Democrats on the Homeland Security Committee said they support deficit reduction that "does not put our nation at greater risk for a terrorist attack," while Transportation Committee Democrats wrote, "Infrastructure investment is a critical tool to reduce the deficit" because it creates jobs.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee sent separate letters to the supercommittee but agreed that the military should be pared no deeper than cuts that have already been enacted.

"Additional reductions in the base budget of the Department of Defense will compound deep reductions Congress has already imposed and critically compromise national security," the top members of Armed Services panel wrote.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel, also trumpeted that theme, vowing to fight any defense cuts that this year's debt ceiling law would automatically trigger if Congress fails to approve major savings.

The fact that House Democrats wrote their own letters _ as opposed to joint letters co-signed by committee Republicans _ underscores the deep partisan chasm over how the $14 trillion federal debt should be tamed. Congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama want some tax increases included in any debt-reduction package, particularly on the wealthy, an idea that the GOP rejects.

The letters also spotlighted the tenacity with which many lawmakers defend programs they have jurisdiction over, even in the face of a debt problem that both parties agree is a significant threat to the nation's long-term fiscal and economic health.

The 12-member supercommittee _ evenly divided between Democratic and GOP lawmakers _ has until Nov. 23 to approve at least $1.2 trillion in savings over the coming decade. Congress then will have until Dec. 23 to approve the package. If it fails, $1.2 trillion in cuts to defense and many domestic programs would phase in beginning in 2013.

The same law that created the supercommittee gave Congress' regular committees until Friday to submit their advice.

Some of the letters that Democrats submitted on Thursday suggested specific savings.

These included proposals to raise fees on large banks and crack down on workers who incorrectly classify themselves as independent contractors, foregoing some taxes. Other plans included reclaiming unspent money from old water projects, boosting fees for mineral production leases and making small business programs more efficient.

Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, which controls more than $1 trillion in annual agency spending, proposed no specific cuts but emphasized the damage that would be done by across-the-board cuts that would occur if the supercommittee doesn't produce a package of savings that Congress approves.

The supercommittee must produce a fair, effective package of savings "and do no harm to the faltering economic recovery in the short run," wrote Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, top Democrat on the Appropriations panel. "If you fail, dire consequences await our nation."

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes and large health care programs, wrote that the supercommittee must "spur job creation and economic health today." They urged higher taxes on the wealthy while providing tax incentives for companies that create jobs, and protection for Social Security, unemployment benefits and health care coverage.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, proposed $16 billion in new spending that he said would create 560,000 jobs and save $150 billion over the next decade _ one of the few letters to cite specific figures. His suggestions included auctioning space on the nation's airwaves, creating rebates and tax incentives for energy efficiency and forcing drug companies to charge lower prices to many Medicaid recipients.

Democrats from the House Administration Committee, which oversees Congress' own operations, said an unspecified part of lawmakers' own $5 billion annual budget could be saved with more efficient use of energy and technology and its in-house printing.


Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.

The Associated Press