Republicans on a presidential deficit-reduction commission Tuesday pledged at the panel's first meeting to keep an open mind on solutions, but were critical of the idea of a value-added tax.
"Given a national unemployment rate stuck at almost 10 percent and the precarious position of American families and employers, it is difficult to imagine asking them to pay - on top of everything else and when they can least afford it - what amounts to a national sales tax on everything they buy - including food, clothing, medicine and housing," said House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.
Democrats stressed that no lawmakers have offered a VAT proposal, which some - including White House adviser Paul Volcker, have argued should be considered as a way to close the deficit.
"There are some, I think, who have preconceived notions of why we are here," Senate Majority Whip Rep. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. "I don't believe this commission is a Trojan horse for a VAT tax."
Camp and other Republicans said they were more interested in reducing spending.
"If you look at the math of all of this, spending is the culprit," House Budget Commitee ranking member Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said at the commission's first meeting. "You cannot tax your way out of this problem, so I don't think we should go down that path."
Durbin said the commission should not become a forum for "revising the greatest hits" of the debate over the recently enacted healthcare reform bill. Several Republicans raised the issue during the meeting because they contend the law will add to the deficit - a position with which Democrats disagree.
Several Democrats also argued that no ideas should be forbidden from consideration.
"I hope none of us will take things off the table prematurely, because I think it is clear it's going to take dramatic changes on the spending side of the ledger, and it's going to take changes on the revenue side of the ledger," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., called on the commission to begin by looking at ways to get at the $345 billion in uncollected taxes; crack down on waste, fraud and abuse in government spending; and look to technology for money-saving streamlining of government programs.
The commission will next meet May 26 and every month thereafter, with subgroups meeting more frequently. The final meeting will be Dec. 1, when the panel submits its package to Congress.
Under the executive order establishing the panel, 14 of the 18 members must agree to the deficit-cutting recommendations. That means Democrats will have their work cut out to convince at least four of the eight Republicans on the panel to agree to the eventual final package.