By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A high-level Republican aide on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday was named staff director of the new congressional committee that will look for 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.
"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.
The so-called "super committee" that Prater has been assigned to was established by deficit-reduction legislation enacted at the beginning of this month, just in time to avoid a government default on its debt.
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 benefit programs such as Medicare healthcare for the elderly and the Social Security retirement program.
Prater has expertise in all those areas, as the Finance Committee has jurisdiction over tax and healthcare policy.
The appointment of a Republican 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, a 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 that he brokered with congressional leaders, $917 billion in government spending cuts over 10 years represent a downpayment on deficit reduction.
The special committee was created to find at least $1.2 trillion in additional savings. The panel is made up of 12 lawmakers -- six Democrats and six Republicans from the House of Representatives and Senate.
The committee is supposed to hold its first meeting by September 16 and provide a deficit-reduction plan to the full Congress by November 23, which would have to be enacted by December 23.
That's relatively little time for a new committee to grapple with complex tax and spending programs and the panel's deliberations are expected to be contentious.
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.
(Additional reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Eric Beech)