Debt panel gets stark words of warning

WASHINGTON — Experts from recent bipartisan debt-reduction commissions gave Congress' debt "supercommittee" stark, sobering warnings Tuesday about imminent economic disaster unless lawmakers ac t quickly and boldly to cut federal debt sharply.

Democrats in Congress are reluctant to back dramatic changes in government health care programs. Republicans insist that taxes must not go up. If those unyielding positions persist — and so far, they have — both parties "will be equally complicit in bringing the nation close to the fiscal brink," said Pete Domenici, a former Republican senator from New Mexico who once headed the Senate Budget Committee. "I hope you heard that."

Another expert voiced doubt about prospects for consensus.

"I have great respect for each of you individually, but collectively, I'm worried you're going to fail, fail the country," said Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who headed a 2010 bipartisan deficit-reduction commission.

However, he later added: "I think you can get this done."

But as Bowles and three other bipartisan-panel chairmen took questions Tuesday from the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, it was clear that the panel's lawmakers were largely stuck on remedies.

The 12-member committee, six Democrats and six Republicans, has 22 more days to devise a plan to save at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade. If no plan is adopted, automatic spending cuts totaling about $1 trillion over nine years will go into effect in 2013.

Co-chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, offered the Republican Party line that changes need to be made in entitlement programs, such as Medicare.

Democrats emphasize higher taxes on the wealthy as a key way to pare deficits.

The hearing featured few new ideas but lots of fresh pressure from Washington wise men and women on the lawmakers to legislate.

"You all know what you have to do in your gut," said Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming who, along with Bowles, headed the panel that recommended ways last year to shave $4 trillion from deficits over 10 years.