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New super committee has difficult job to do

The congressional "super committee" on deficit reduction has extraordinary new power to chart the nation's budget and policy decisions for the next decade. What it doesn't have is a meeting room. Or a staff director. Or clear rules to govern the bipartisan panel that in three months is expected to recommend $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, a massive undertaking that many are skeptical will succeed.

Think of the new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction as a congressional pop-up panel. It has fewer than 100 days to resolve some of the most difficult, partisan fights over taxes and entitlement policy that have stymied Washington for decades. When it runs out of days, the committee disappears.

The first goal of the super committee is modest: Figure out when to meet. By law, the panel must convene by Sept. 16, a requirement included in the deal to increase the debt ceiling. But right after President Obama signed the legislation, Congress left for its August recess.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the Democratic co-chairman, has spoken to each super committee member since the 12 were appointed. Staffs confer daily. With the Republican co-chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Murray and the others are working "on a path forward to deliver the balanced and bipartisan results the American people expect and deserve," her spokesman Eli Zupnick said.

Sensing the urgency of the situation, some committee members have suggested cutting short their monthlong break to get to work.

Republicans particularly like this suggestion because of the partisan imagery it would provide: Congress rolling up its sleeves to solve the nation's budget problems while Obama is vacationing with his family in Martha's Vineyard. Some lawmakers may return early to Washington even if the super committee cannot convene all 12 members.

The subsequent meetings will bring the real work, after the organizational issues are resolved.

For example, it will take a majority on the panel to send its recommendations to Congress -- a steep hurdle given the evenly divided number of Democrats and Republicans.

The committee is tasked with finding at least $1.5 trillion in savings over the next decade with spending cuts, taxes or a combination. Past efforts stalemated on a fundamental disagreement: Republicans refuse to consider new taxes, and Democrats are unwilling to cut entitlement programs unless new revenue is part of the deal.

Republicans say the current budget base line should be used. That approach would not count potential revenue coming at the end of 2012, when tax cuts President George W. Bush gave to upper-income households and others are set to expire. Democrats want to factor in some of that revenue boost.

The committee must make its recommendations by Nov. 23. Congress must vote on those recommendations no later than Dec. 23.

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