* 50 lawmakers urge panel to "go big"
* Some millionaires call for higher taxes
* Stalemate persists, but talks go on
(Adds debt figure, Murray quote, other detail)
By Richard Cowan and Donna Smith
WASHINGTON, Nov 16 Budget talks in Congress
were locked in stalemate on Wednesday as Democrats and
Republicans waited for the other side to make a new offer on
taxes and healthcare.
With a deadline less than a week away, members of a
12-member "super committee" tasked with finding $1.2 trillion
in budget savings confronted the same barriers that have
thwarted earlier efforts to rein in the growing national debt,
which crossed the $15 trillion mark on Tuesday.
Republicans, who have moved away from their staunch
opposition to tax increases, said they would not give any more
ground until Democrats consider reforms that would partially
privatize the Medicare health-insurance program for retirees.
"I'm still waiting for a proposal that actually solves the
spending crisis," the panel's top Republican, Representative
Jeb Hensarling, told Reuters.
Democrats have proposed raising the Medicare eligibility
age from 65 to 67 but have shied away from sweeping reforms.
They proposed a $1 trillion tax increase last week.
"We are not going to accept a plan that gives tax breaks to
the wealthiest Americans and balances all this incredible
challenge we have on the backs of middle-class Americans," said
Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the committee.
Despite the posturing, negotiations continued behind the
scenes. Democrats might reconvene later in the day after
staffers assess a few options, Democratic Representative Xavier
Becerra said. He would not say whether Democrats planned to
float a new offer.
SOME URGE PANEL TO GO BIG
As negotiators grappled, some 50 lawmakers from both
parties urged them to shoot for a much bigger deal that would
come closer to the $4 trillion in savings that outside experts
say is needed to keep U.S. debt at a manageable level.
"This is about more than money. It's about whether the
president and Congress can competently govern," said Senator
Lamar Alexander, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate.
A deal of that magnitude would almost certainly require
substantial tax increases and spending cuts, angering interest
groups on both sides as the 2012 election season heats up.
Interest groups like Americans for Tax Reform and the
seniors' group AARP have mobilized to protect their turf, while
the healthcare and defense industries are lobbying furiously to
minimize the impact of any cuts.
One group came to Capitol Hill to say it was willing to
sacrifice. About two dozen wealthy individuals, including
several former officials at Google Inc., testified at a hearing
and told reporters they were willing to pay more income taxes.
"Our country has been good to us. It provided a foundation
through which we could succeed. Now, we want to do our part to
keep that foundation strong so that others can succeed as we
have," the Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength wrote in
a letter signed by 138 group members to President Barack Obama
and congressional leaders.
The super committee faces a deadline of Nov. 23, but any
deal will have to be hammered out a few days before then to
give budget analysts time to crunch the numbers. Negotiations
are expected to go through the weekend.
Failure to reach a deal would trigger $1.2 trillion in
automatic spending cuts that would fall equally on military and
domestic programs. Republicans appear to be more alarmed by
that prospect than Democrats, and some have proposed shifting
the balance to ease the blow to the Pentagon.
Republicans also worry that Obama could allow taxes on the
wealthy to rise at the end of 2012 if they don't agree to a
permanent overhaul of the tax code by then.
Congress has until Dec. 23 to approve any deal that emerges
from the super committee. Failure to so could further anger a
public that has been rattled by repeated budget showdowns this
year, and prompt investors to question whether Washington has
the willpower to make tough fiscal choices at a time when
sovereign debt burdens in Greece, Italy and other countries are
rattling world financial markets.
It could also make it harder for Congress to sign off on a
number of expiring provisions, such as a payroll tax cut and
enhanced jobless benefits, that could slow economic growth if
they are allowed to lapse.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Susan Cornwell,
Andy Sullivan and Rachelle Younglai; Writing by Andy Sullivan;
Editing by Eric Walsh)