HELENA - U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, seeking ideas Monday for the congressional deficit reduction supercommittee, told seniors he agrees a tax hike for higher-income earners is needed in conjunction with budget cuts.
The senator's office said about 14,000 Montana seniors joined the town hall teleconference.
Several spoke in favor of a tax hike on the wealthy, generally an approach favored by President Barack Obama and some Democrats. Others also worried deficit reduction plans could include spending cuts that would hurt Social Security or other key programs.
Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said cuts are needed but Social Security will remain off the chopping block because it is not part of the nation's near-term spending deficit problem.
On Monday, Obama laid out a plan for $1.5 trillion in new taxes as part of a total 10-year deficit reduction package totaling more than $3 trillion. His proposal would also reduce spending in mandatory benefit programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.
Republican leaders have countered that the deficit supercommittee should not consider tax increases.
Baucus was asked what he thought about the president's plan.
"I think the president is on the right track by saying we have a huge problem," Baucus said. "The best way to get the deficit down is to reduce spending, but you also have to increase revenue."
Baucus said the super-committee will be making its own judgments and offering its own plan. He said the biggest hurdle will be reaching through the partisanship of Washington, D.C., to get Republicans and Democrats to agree on a package.
"I hope we in Congress working together, because that is what it takes, working together, can find a solution where higher income Americans pay more of their fair share," Baucus told one caller.
Others on the call urged Baucus to help speed approval of an oil pipeline through eastern Montana as a way to spur the economy. They also want him to find other ways to reduce the cost of oil and to support bringing troops back from overseas wars to save money.
Themes favored by conservatives also came up on occasion.
One man said "Obamacare" health reforms were taking all his money. A woman asked Baucus to stop sending foreign aid to other countries while the U.S. continues to borrow its own money.
Baucus said foreign aid is only about 1 percent of the federal budget and would do little to ease the spending deficit.
Baucus also advocated a rewrite of the tax code to make it simpler by getting rid of many credits, loopholes and deductions.
"It is just way too complicated. It is unfair. We need to clean it up and make it much more simple," he said.
Baucus, answering a question from a woman concerned about the growing gap between the wealthy and poor, said a revamped tax code could help.
"We have to work on that disparity, and one way is through the tax code. Not the only way, but certainly one way," Baucus said.
The 12-member supercommittee has until Thanksgiving to approve $1.5 trillion in 10-year budget savings through a combination of spending cuts or tax increases. If Congress doesn't approve at least $1.2 trillion in debt reduction by Christmas, automatic spending cuts will be triggered, affecting hundreds of government programs.