Six days left: Slowly, for super committee, failure is becoming an option

Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on how much tax hikes should contribute to deficit reduction. The deadline for the super committee to reach a deal is next Wednesday.

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    Super committee co-chair Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) speaks to reporters as she arrives for a meeting in the Capitol in Washington Friday. The special congressional committee is tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in budget savings over 10 years, but with a November 23 deadline looming, Republicans and Democrats have not yet sealed a deal.
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Within six days, the deficit-cutting “super committee” must produce a plan that can both cut at least $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over 10 years and win majority support on the 12-member panel.

For weeks, the mantra from both Democrats and Republicans has been that failure is not an option. But as of this weekend, failure appears a likely prospect.

“No one is moving. No one is willing to move,” says Stan Collender, a longtime congressional budget analyst with Qorvis Communications in Washington. “When they had an opportunity to do something on the deficit – or maintain their party’s priorities – both sides balked.”

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He adds, “This is probably the final admission – there should be no more proof required – that Congress is dysfunctional.”

If the super committee fails to reach a deal, some $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts will kick in beginning in 2013 – including $600 billion in cuts to defense spending.

Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on how much tax hikes should contribute to deficit reduction, including whether to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. And Democrats are reluctant to offer concessions on entitlements until the tax side is resolved.

With the panel apparently at an impasse, top congressional leaders are becoming more assertive in determining the outcome.

“I think the leaders have some responsibility to help the committee succeed – and that’s what we’ve been doing,” said Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, at a press briefing on Thursday.

So far, the speaker and Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada have been in the loop on all offers and counteroffers, say aides close to the negotiations. But they have not dictated terms or prescribed a plan.

While the panel held four public hearings with all 12 members at the table early on, the norm in recent weeks has been more like shuttle diplomacy, with Republicans and Democrats meeting separately but getting together in bipartisan subgroups to hash out particular issues.

The most promising formula for success remains the proposal by Sen. Patrick Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, which broke new ground for Republicans by adopting tax hikes as part of the deficit reduction package. Until that point, the GOP line had been to keep tax cuts off the table.

While the plan is still in flux, the template lays out $700 billion in spending cuts, nearly $300 billion in new revenue, mainly from curbing tax breaks, and some $200 billion in other items, including interest savings.

At midweek, Democratic aides close to the negotiations said that Democrats had accepted this framework. But by week’s end, members of the super committee, typically unwilling to reveal details of their deliberations, were speaking openly about the prospect for failure – and blaming the other side.

“We want to achieve those savings by closing a lot of corporate tax loopholes and asking folks at the top to pay a little bit more, not locking in tax breaks for those individuals, which is what the Republican proposal would do,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland in an interview Friday on CNN’s “American Morning.” Representative Hollen is a member of the super committee and is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

But “it ain’t over till it’s over,” he added. “We’re going to be working overtime to try and reach an agreement.”

In addition to ongoing leadership consultations, six members of the super committee met Thursday and again on Friday in hopes of reaching a consensus on the tax side. These include: Sens. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, and Toomey; and Representative Van Hollen.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group representing 45 senators and more than 100 House members rallied to urge the super committee to go big – that is, aim for a $4 trillion package of deficit reduction – with everything on the table, even if it means breaking with fixed partisan positions.

“This is about more than money. It's about whether the president and the Congress can competently govern, about whether we can face up to the biggest problem facing our country and, working together, can we solve that problem,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, who announced that he would be stepping down from GOP leadership after endorsing the bipartisan effort.

“We now have Republicans who’ve put revenues on the table. We have Democrats on the super committee who’ve put entitlements on the table. Both need to put more on the table and get a result, and we’re here to support them,” he added.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the federal government will spend some $43.9 trillion over 10 years. By that calculation, the super committee’s mandate to find $1.2 trillion amounts to less than 3 cents on the dollar.

“It’s not the magnitude of the number. It’s the nature of the policies they’re dealing with, which are very sensitive, depending on the political parties,” says Patrick Knudsen, senior fellow in federal budgetary affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Still, that goal should have been attainable, says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington. “It will not reflect well on the people who used this opportunity to move toward compromise to, instead, double down on their efforts to protect special interests over the national interest,” she says.

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