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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of Washington lobbyists are scrambling to influence the work of a congressional "super committee" given the job of identifying up to $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions, with many worried about how to gain access to its 12 members.
The committee is due to report its findings by Thanksgiving and with such massive potential cuts to the U.S. federal budget being decided by just a handful of lawmakers in such a short timeframe, lobbyists say the mission to protect their clients' interests is unprecedented and potentially impossible.
"Anyone who tells their client they have figured out how to influence this process is either lying -- or you should hire them," said Joel Johnson, a managing director at the Washington lobbying shop The Glover Park Group and a veteran of the Clinton White House and Capitol Hill.
Johnson said when federal funds are being targeted in traditional congressional committees, work is more predictable, with lobbyists knowing there are a handful of lawmakers who can be approached on a given issue who will determine the outcome.
This special bipartisan committee, made up of six Republican and six Democratic lawmakers, was formed as part of the deal to raise the U.S. debt limit.
It will meet independently from Congress, set its own rules and must come up with at least $1.2 trillion -- and potentially $1.5 trillion -- in budget savings for the next decade. If it fails, or if Congress does not endorse its plan, $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts will be triggered in 2013.
"It's going to be very hard to penetrate at the member level because they have a lot of work to do and they are not going to have three hours a day to meet with advocates on certain issues," Johnson said.
"And they will probably want to shield themselves.
"It's absolutely on an unprecedented scale. ... It will touch every industry, every spending category. This has not happened before. So everyone is in the position of determining the art of the possible in terms of influencing the outcome."
Jack Howard, a lobbyist at Wexler & Walker with close ties to four of the committee's Republican members, said of the super committee and its mandate: "I've been in this town 32 years. It beats anything I've seen."
If the panel fails to reach a deal and the automatic spending cuts kick in, such "triggers" will focus heavily on costly government health insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and the Pentagon budget.
One lobbyist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, predicted "Holy War" between the health and defense industries, and their legions of lobbyists as they try to protect their budgets ahead of the potential automatic cuts.
There are 13,000 registered lobbyists in Washington. Howard, whose firm represents both defense industry clients and those from the health sector, said the level of concern was high. The lobbying fight between both industries will be "like the Crusades in the Middle Ages," he said.
"The point I've been making to clients, the pressure is not so much who you know, but what you know," Howard said. "The onus is on us. It's a question of what you are going to tell these guys that they haven't heard already. This is a unique challenge for the lobbying community. You've really got to hone your policy arguments and take them to next level."
Vin Weber, a Republican congressman turned lobbyist, said efforts to lobby committee members create a delicate situation. "You have to be careful about it because in order for the deal to have credibility with the public it can't be seen to have been forged by lobbyists and influenced by money," he said.
But government watchdog groups are already questioning how impartial committee members can be in deciding where to make cuts because of campaign contributions received in the past.
Between 1999 and August 2011, the 12 lawmakers collectively received more than $9.2 million in campaign contributions from the healthcare industry, according to a Reuters analysis of Federal Election Commission data compiled by watchdog group OpenSecrets.org.
According to OpenSecrets, the real estate industry -- determined to stop the debt committee from closing the home mortgage interest deduction in the tax code -- has donated more than $8.2 million to the Democratic members since 1989, and nearly $3.8 million to the Republican members.
The Sunlight Foundation, another non-partisan watchdog, says at least five of the panel's members are scheduled to hold fund-raisers after the committee begins its work.
Senator Max Baucus, a Democratic committee member, had been due to attend a fund-raiser on October 4 hosted by the National Association of Realtors. But a spokeswoman said on Monday the event had been canceled.
Dave Camp, a Republican committee member, will attend a fund-raiser on September 7 hosted by a number of lobbyists and the political action committee for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
"It's a fine line for these lawmakers to walk," said Michael Beckel, a spokesman for OpenSecrets.
"The super committee members are tasked with deciding what's best for the country, not just what will benefit the interests bankrolling their own re-election prospects."
Additional reporting Maurice Tamman in New York; Editing by Deborah Charles and Bill Trott