Beyond the standard ruminations about American decline and warnings about the threat the deficit poses to national security that accompany nearly every deficit discussion in Washington, committee members spent much of the meeting discussing employment in the context of deficit reduction. Republicans insisted that bringing down the deficit would itself pave the way for job growth, while Democrats argued that a short-term jobs agenda needs to be part of a deficit-reduction plan in order to bring in more revenue in the future.
"We can't fix our budget without fixing jobs, and we can't fix jobs without fixing our budget," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said, summarizing the dilemma others acknowledged.
Even if the committee members hadn't wanted to focus on jobs during their first meeting, a pack of more than a dozen protesters made that impossible.
A little over 20 minutes into the roughly hour-long meeting, protesters huddled outside the meeting room's doors interrupted the proceedings with chants of "What do we want? Jobs! When do we need 'em? NOW!" The chants caused Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., to stop speaking, and the meeting paused briefly as staff struggled to block out the noise.
Even when Camp did resume, he was barely audible over the shouts. But he, like most of the members, focused his opening remarks on the dual need for job growth and deficit reduction facing the committee.
"The final product must be looked at through the prism of job creation," Camp said. "By reducing the burden the federal debt places on employers, families, and taxpayers, we can help get the country back on track and Americans back to work."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., meanwhile, reversed that causal link: "The quickest, most effective way to reduce the deficit in the short-term is to kick the economy into a higher gear and grow jobs."
Members also brought up tax reform, even as they acknowledged that the committee has just 77 days to make its recommendations. That time crunch may explain the repeated references to the work of past bipartisan groups dedicated to bringing down the deficit. The plan put forward by the president's fiscal commission last December, the plan championed by former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and former CBO Director Alice Rivlin, and the work of the Gang of Six all figured into the opening meeting. Each of those plans addresses comprehensive tax and entitlement reform to achieve savings in the neighborhood of $4 trillion over 10 years.
"If this committee fails-and I'm confident it won't-it won't be from a lack of ideas, but a lack of political will," Van Hollen said.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., called on fellow committee members to go above and beyond the $1.2-$1.5 trillion in deficit cuts they are tasked with identifying and look to larger reforms of both entitlements and the tax code.
"You-we-could choose to just nibble around the edges of this problem and just look for redundant programs and obsolete programs … and it might even be that they'll add up to one and a half trillion dollars, which is our statutory goal," Toomey said. "But if that's all we do then I would suggest, as I think Senator [Rob] Portman observed, that we really wouldn't be doing all that is necessary to put us on a pro-growth and sustainable path."
President Obama is also expected to urge the panel to cut more than $1.5 trillion from 10-year spending plans and "overshoot" its target, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Yet, belying the cordiality of the committee's first meeting, it's clear that there are places each side isn't willing to go.
During an American Enterprise Institute event Thursday afternoon, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., warned against any more cuts to defense than the $350 billion already planned for the next decade. Defense, he said, "cannot be seen as a solution to deficit reduction." Kyl added that he has already warned his GOP colleagues on the deficit-reduction committee that he will quit the panel if further defense cuts are considered.
And on the other side of the aisle, Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., voted against the fiscal commission's plan last December because of its cuts to benefit programs.
But the most contentious of issues may not be discussed in public, its two leaders said on Thursday, despite calls from colleagues that the panel's work all be done in open session.
Cochair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., echoing fellow cochair Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said, "We looked at how House and Senate committees operate, and we worked together to make sure this committee met publicly, but also had the ability to meet just among members to discuss important issues."
The committee's official deadline to report out recommendations for deficit reduction is Nov. 23, but Kyl said that realistically the panel needs to complete its work by the end of October in order to have a final package by Thanksgiving.
The package will be given expedited consideration in both chambers and go for a vote by Dec. 23. If it fails to pass, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, split equally between security and non-security spending, would take effect beginning in 2013.
Billy House and Megan Scully contributed.