DEBT SHOWDOWN

Debt ceiling committee faces touch deficit reduction challenge

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"The joint committee is not going to gridlock," said the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The panel is "designed to function and to tackle some of the very difficult problems that we have been unwilling or unable to deal with."

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

The agreement enacted Tuesday calls for $917 billion in discretionary spending to be cut over a decade from Cabinet-level agencies and the thousands of programs they administer.

The new committee will scour the so-called mandatory side of the budget — programs whose spending levels run on autopilot. They include Medicare and Medicaid, the government's health care for seniors and the poor, as well as Social Security and veterans' retirement benefits.

This panel could proceed from the work of others. A group led by Vice President Joe Biden that tried to find savings for the debt limit bill broke apart over Democratic demands on taxes but had made some progress in developing a consensus package of cuts to programs like farm subsidies, federal pensions and military health benefits. Cuts to Medicare providers like skilled nursing facilities and home health care also were discussed.

There's no doubt presidential politics will loom over the new negotiations.

Even before the president signed the legislation, he and Republicans were maneuvering for political position on the next stage.

"We can't balance the budget on the backs of people who have borne the biggest brunt of this recession," the president said, renewing his call for higher taxes on the wealthy. "Everyone is going to have to chip in. It's only fair."

Senate Republicans said it won't happen.

"I'm comfortable we aren't going to raise taxes coming out of this joint committee," McConnell said in an interview with Fox on Monday.

In a speech shortly before the vote, he predicted instead a renewal of the most recent struggle over spending cuts.

The debt limit will have to be raised shortly after the 2012 election, he said, predicting that no president of either party will be "allowed to raise the debt ceiling without ... having to engage in the kind of debate we've just been through."

He conceded that Republicans got only part of what they wanted in the deal, and he pointed to next year's elections — with control of the White House and Congress at stake — as a chance to gain greater clout.

"Republicans only control one half of one third of the federal government, but the American people agree with us," he said.

Reid said the period immediately ahead "is going to be painful."

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