By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A high-level Republican aide on the Senate Finance Committee was named on Tuesday to the top staff position on the new congressional panel charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in government savings over the next decade.
Mark Prater, who has served on the finance panel staff for more than 20 years, has worked on tax, healthcare and employment issues that members of the special committee will focus on in looking for ways to further reduce the deficit.
As staff director, Prater will be in charge of the bipartisan, bicameral committee's day-to-day operations as it works to provide a deficit-reduction plan to the full Congress by November 23, which would have to be enacted by December 23.
On congressional committees, staff directors are often seen as wielding influence behind the scenes.
"Mark has a well-earned reputation for being a workhorse who members of both parties have relied on," said Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling, the co-chairs of the special committee.
Meanwhile, the six Republican members of the new committee gathered on Capitol Hill. Hensarling, in a statement following the day-long closed-door meeting, said "Committee Republicans today discussed the work that others have contributed to the cause of deficit reduction and how we can work with our Democratic colleagues to achieve success."
There have been several deficit-reduction initiatives over the past year or so, including a presidential commission and a bipartisan group of six senators, both of which concluded that spending cuts and tax increases were needed to tame government budget deficits over the long-run.
The so-called "super committee" was established by deficit-reduction legislation enacted at the beginning of this month, just in time to avoid a government default on its debt. The panel is made up of 12 lawmakers -- six Democrats and six Republicans from both the House of Representatives and Senate.
The panel's first formal meeting is supposed to be held by September 12 and possibly as early as next week when members of Congress return from an August break.
Deliberations on the special committee are expected to be contentious as it grapples with complex tax and spending programs in a relatively short period of time. If a majority of the super committee fails to embrace a plan, automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs, would go forward.
Democrats want increased tax revenues to be a part of deficit-reduction efforts, which Republicans have firmly rejected until recently.
Republicans want further domestic spending cuts, including reductions to popular programs like Medicare health care for the elderly and the Social Security retirement program.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking with business leaders in San Antonio, Texas, said the committee should revamp Social Security and Medicare, two programs long championed by Democrats.
While making changes in either program would raise political risks, McConnell said, neither one is "sustainable with its current eligibility."
"This is the perfect time to do what everybody knows needs to happen," McConnell said. "The politics takes care of itself if you do it together, there's no fallout at all."
The appointment of Republican Prater to the staff director job brought praise from Democrats.
"Over the last 20 years, Mark Prater has built a well-deserved reputation as an honest broker, not just a Republican staffer, well capable of finding the middle ground and producing results," said Bill Dauster, deputy chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Another Senate Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified, pointed out that Prater has worked on legislation expanding health insurance for poor children, as well as past budget deals that have included revenue increases.
Under the deficit-reduction law signed by President Barack Obama, which he brokered with Congress, the $917 billion in government spending cuts over 10 years represent only a down payment on long-term reduction in the federal deficit.
(Additional reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Eric Beech and Todd Eastham)