The doors opened, and the staffers marched in first. The reporters followed, quickly overwhelming the space they'd been given. Members of the protest group Code Pink, which materializes whenever more than three cameras are placed on tripods, took their seats and showed off their "billionaire" garb—top hat, evening gown, stacks of funny money. The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing room was officially open for the first meeting of the supercommittee.
Fine: Technically, it's not the "supercommittee." It's the Special Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction. Its members differ on the adjectives and powers they use to describe it. When Ohio's Republican Sen. Rob Portman leans into his microphone, he calls it "extraordinary."
It had better be. The committeeis tasked to cut $1.5 trillion or more from the next 10 years of budgets. If it fails, that much money will be automatically cut from the budgets, willy-nilly, as if hacked off by a dull ax.
The supermembers appear to take their responsibilities seriously, judging by their effort to find and deliver the best cliché. "The late Spanish philosopher George Santayana," says Republican co-chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling, "once said that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."
"The committee members have refrained from drawing lines in the sand," adds Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. She also says that they will not be "boxed in or pigeonholed by special interest groups," that they will be inspired by "people from all walks of life," and that they are "not starting from scratch."
The supermembers wish to remind voters, who may have forgotten the horror of the debt-ceiling showdown, how important their committee is. S&P has downgraded the U.S. credit rating. Stock markets across the world are jittery. Faith in government is at all-time lows. Portman brings his own spin. "The truth," he says, is that "nothing else has worked."
And the supercommittee might not fail! Really, it might not. The combination of back-slapping negotiations and threats of automatic cuts has been tried before. Sort of. In the 1980s, when the idea came out of another joint commission, sequestration looked like a nice incentive for Democrats and Republicans to agree on budget deals. But the Supreme Court challenged the way they'd devised it, and future Congresses just ignored it.
The difficult reality can wait for the backroom. Today was the day for dreams. Each of the committee's 12 members fantasizes about a deal that would be both 1) happily bipartisan and 2) exactly what they wanted.
"We can grow by expanding energy production," says Republican Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce committee, "by harnessing our nation's great resources." Message: Drill here, legalize light bulbs now.
"It's not just spending we need to look at," says Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "It's also revenues." Message: We can raise taxes, or at least nuke some loopholes.
"Tweaks and one-time savings could add up to $1.5 trillion over 10 years," says Portman. "Yet they would leave in place soaring future deficits caused by unreformed entitlements." Message: We should do an end-run around Congress to raise the Social Security retirement age.
All of a sudden, there is a loud din outside the room as 20-odd protesters start screaming call-and-response slogans.
"What do we want? Jobs! When do we need them? Now! Jobs, not cuts!"
The Code Pink protesters leap from their chairs to join the protest. The security staff can't keep the noise out of the room, because the cords piping audio and video out of the room have been duct-taped to the threshold of the door. Republican Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who has talked about starting tax reform in the supercommittee, tries to speak.
"By reducing the burden—"
"We can get our economy back on track."
Camp gives up until the room is cleared. There is bipartisan socializing. John Kerry chats with Pat Toomey. Upton jokes with James Clyburn. The protest ends with no arrests—"You rock!" says an organizer to his crowd of underemployed shouters—and the committee picks back up for more speeches and a vote on the rules.
By noon, the work, if public speeches can be called that, is done. Chris Van Hollen warns that there are only 77 days to power this through, and the members scatter. Toomey tells me he's "cautiously optimistic." Murray, who's being followed by at least 20 reporters, says that when it comes to taxes, "everything is on the table."
Kyl, the Senate minority whip who's retiring next year, finds his way over to another event. The Foreign Policy Initiative, the group co-founded by Bill Kristol to keep Congress hawkish in the Obama era, brings him in for a session about defense spending. Will there be cuts?
"I'm off the committee if we're going to talk about further defense spending," he says.
The 77 days have begun.