DEBT SHOWDOWN

Debt ceiling committee faces touch deficit reduction challenge

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation's bills are being paid and Congress has bolted the hothouse of Washington, one debt limit deadline beaten and another ahead for a dozen yet-to-be-named lawmakers.

The signing of the debt bill is only the start of spending cuts and deficit reduction. (Photo: Pete Souza/White House)

They might want to hold off making Thanksgiving and Christmas plans.

For the six Republicans and six Democrats, the toughest-to-swallow items on the deficit-cutting menu await. This group, to be named from the House and Senate in two weeks, must find at least $1.2 trillion in budget cuts by Thanksgiving and Congress must approve them by year's end — or take the blame for deep and broad spending cuts that would strike GOP priorities like defense and Democratic favorites like programs for the poor.

And then lawmakers would have to explain the cuts to their constituents — up close and personally, on the campaign trail next year.

Facing the select group are a lot of the same "peas" that a frustrated President Barack Obama suggested Congress eat earlier in the difficult debate. Then as now, Democrats insist on balancing tax revenues with spending cuts. Republicans say taxes are off the table. That alone is a recipe for the same sort of staring contest that kept the sides from agreeing to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion borrowing limit until hours before the money was to run out Tuesday.

On Sunday night, the combatants agreed to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for $2.1 trillion in deficit cuts over a decade. The House overcame objections from conservatives Monday and passed the agreement with bipartisan support, 269-161. The Senate followed on Tuesday, 74-26. Obama signed the bill less than two hours later.

Talk immediately turned to the 12 House and Senate lawmakers and how the task awaiting them looks much like the ideological divide that was bridged only by the debt ceiling deadline and the threat of economic disaster.

The new panel's target is to find $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in budget cuts over the next decade, including interest savings. Congress will have until Christmas to vote on the recommendations.

As an incentive for Congress to act, failure to do so would trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, affecting the Pentagon as well as domestic programs.

"If that happens, it could trigger a round of dangerous across-the-board defense cuts that would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday in a letter to troops and staff.

In the afterglow of the deal's passage Tuesday, Senate leaders were optimistic about the chances of compromise.

"Hanging over the head of the joint committee is this trigger that is pretty drastic," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.

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