WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) on Friday named several individuals to a tax reform (search) panel he has commissioned to seek ways to effectively reform what he considers a tax code burdensome to the nation.
"I believe this is an essential task for our country — it's a task that will treat our taxpayers more fairly," Bush said during a photo op with Breaux in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday. "A simpler code will make it easier for our taxpayers ... and make sure the economic growth we're seeing in the United States goes forward ... it seems like to me the tax code today discourages economic vitality and growth when you spend billions of hours filling out the forms."
Bush cited job numbers released by the government Friday as a sign that more Americans are finding work.
The Labor Department reported Friday that 157,000 new jobs — fewer than expected — were added to U.S. payrolls in December as retailers surprisingly shed employees during the holiday shopping season. In 2004 as a whole, job creation was relatively strong in marked contrast to 2003 when jobs were lost.
"That's positive news," the president said of the job growth numbers, saying he is "firm" in his desire to get something done on the tax-reform issue.
But some Democrats already began to assail the president's pick of reform panel members.
"Again, we see a White House looking for so-called recommendations only from those everyone knows will agree with the administration. That's not leadership, it's close-mindedness," said New York Rep. Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Ways and Means.
"I hope the president understands that it will take more than one former Senate Democrat to obtain the broad bipartisan support that is needed to make the tax code truly simpler and fairer."
Treasury Secretary John Snow said "everything's on the table," including possibly the popular home mortgage and charitable deductions.
"It's a task that'll treat our taxpayers more fairly," Bush said.
Snow, talking to reporters later outside the White House, said the panel has been ordered "to take a hard look at everything."
Asked if that includes the home-mortgage and charitable deductions that millions of Americans use to reduce their federal tax liabilities, Snow gave no solid assurance that either would be kept. He merely noted that the panel has been told to "give due consideration to the importance of charitable deduction and the home mortgage deduction."
"And we will," Breaux said.
Another key question facing the panel is whether to accomplish reforms through changes to the existing tax code, or by scrapping it and moving to either a flat-tax or national sales tax system.
"I think it could be addressed in any of those," Mack said.
"Everything's on the table," he added, echoing Snow.
Mack and Breaux insisted that Bush had not given them any specific marching orders or tried to send them in any particular direction.
"The president was pretty clear in his comments with us — that we have great latitude, there is no end result that he was trying to lead us to, other than the fact that he said, you know, this is got to be simpler. ... The other objective they asked us to keep in mind is that it should be pro-growth, it should create greater opportunities for job creation," Mack said. "I frankly begin the process without conclusions in my mind about what should take place."
But though both former senators emphasized an open process that will draw in citizens and experts from around the country as they craft recommendations for a tax code overhaul, Snow made clear that the White House will have its hands in the effort the whole way.
"I don't think what they give us will be a total surprise to us," he said. "I look forward to having regular consultations."
The panel is to deliver its report to the Treasury Department by July 31.
FOX News has also learned from a senior Bush administration official that another individual, Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist for Charles Schwab & Co., is expected to be named to the panel.
Sonders is also a senior vice president for Charles Schwab. Her responsibilities range from quantitative analysis to economic strategy for individual, corporate and institutional investors.
Sonders joined U.S. Trust, a division of Charles Schwab, in June 1999 as a managing director and member of its investment policy committees. Prior to joining U.S. Trust, Sonders spent 13 years at Avatar Associates, an original division of the Zweig/Avatar Group.
Sonders is a regular panelist on Louis Rukeyser's "Wall Street" on CNBC, having appeared on its PBS predecessor "Wall $treet Week" with Louis Rukeyser since 1997. She also appears on CBS, CNN, FOX News with Neil Cavuto and Bloomberg TV. She is a frequent speaker about the stock market and the economy at money management seminars nationwide, and is a regular panelist at events hosted by the New York Society of Security Analysts and the Securities Industry Institute
Sonders received her bachelor's degree in economics and political science from the University of Delaware in 1986, and sits on various advisory committees for the university. She received her MBA in finance from Fordham University in 1990.
FOX News' Liza Porteus, James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.