WASHINGTON – House Democrats are advising Congress' supercommittee to create jobs, raise revenues and avoid damaging cuts to crucial public works, education and health programs as the panel searches for ways to curb the government's growing debt.
A day ahead of a deadline for submitting advice to the supercommittee, minority Democrats from 16 House committees released letters they are sending the panel with their recommendations. Some propose specific savings such as boosting government fees on financial firms and defunding old water projects. All emphasize the need to protect programs that keep the economy strong, especially at a time of high unemployment and a faltering economy.
"Democrats strongly believe that economic growth is an integral component of such a proposal, because creating jobs is the most effective way to reduce the deficit," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote in her own letter to the supercommittee.
The fact that House Democrats wrote their own letters — as opposed to joint letters co-signed by committee Republicans — underscores the wide partisan divide 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, an idea that the GOP rejects.
Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, which controls over $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 be automatically triggered if the supercommittee doesn't produce a package of savings that Congress approves.
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.
Republicans and Senate committees will be sending additional letters to the supercommittee over the next two days. The panel is charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in savings over the coming decade.
In a rare sign of bipartisan agreement, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., signaled at a hearing Thursday that he is open to tax increases to protect against further defense cuts.
"We're going to have to stop repeating ideological talking points and address our budget problems comprehensively, through smarter spending and increased revenue," McKeon said.
Among letters already sent to the supercommittee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who heads the Senate Health and Education Committee, asked the panel to take "bold and immediate action to create jobs" while embracing deficit reduction that would take effect after the unemployment rate drops.
Harkin suggests raising taxes and saving money by giving brand-name drugmakers fewer years of patent protection against generic competitors and encouraging students to take education loans directly from their colleges — both policies that have been favored by the Obama administration. Harkin wrote that the supercommittee should avoid cuts to programs including job training, Obama's health care overhaul and aid to the disabled.
The leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., combined on a letter asking the supercommittee to "not neglect America's transportation needs."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, encouraged the committee to pare savings from Social Security by gradually raising the future retirement age from 67 to 69 and, in some years, trimming annual inflation adjustments in benefits by 1 percentage point. Hutchison has been offering that proposal for weeks; it's opposed by the seniors group AARP.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he and the panel's top Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, hope to write a bipartisan letter that other Armed Services members could support.
The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he is trying to unite minority Republicans on that panel behind their own letter.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is also on the supercommittee, is considered unlikely to send a recommendation letter, as is another supercommittee member, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich.
The supercommittee has until Nov. 23 to send a package of savings to Congress. Lawmakers will have until Dec. 23 to vote on the measure, with failure meaning $1.2 trillion in cuts in defense and many domestic programs will begin taking effect in 2013.
Warren Buffett has also brought his fight to raise taxes on the super-wealthy to the deficit-reduction panel.
In an exchange of letters between the billionaire investor and a Republican congressman that Buffett sent the committee this week, Buffett is offering to release his federal tax returns — with a condition.
"If you could get other ultra rich Americans to publish their returns along with mine, that would be very useful to the tax dialogue and intelligent reform," Buffett wrote.
Buffett's views have become central to the struggle between Obama and Congress over how to control the federal debt. Obama has used the "Buffett Rule" to describe his fight to clamp taxes on the wealthy that are at least as high as those paid by lower earners, a drive that Republicans oppose.
AP writer Donna Cassata contributed to this story.