Three days left: why debt super committee is poised to throw in the towel

By law, the deficit-reducing super committee must deliver a plan to Congress by Wednesday. But the prospects for success are fading to black.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
In this Sept. 13 file photo, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction meets to hear from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf about the national debt on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left to right on bottom are: Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, co-chair, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., co-chair, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. From left on top row are Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

The deficit-reducing “super committee” is nearly out of time to release a plan to cut at least $1.2 trillion off federal deficits over 10 years.

To put that task in context: The federal government is now borrowing nearly 40 cents for every dollar it spends. The 12-member committee is tasked to find a way to borrow about 3 cents less – and to persuade at least seven members to support it.

But the prospects for success are fading to black. By its own rules, the panel has until the end of Monday to release a plan for public scrutiny. By law, the panel must deliver a plan to Congress by Nov. 23. If Congress fails to pass the plan by Christmas, or if the super committee doesn’t produce a plan, then $1.3 trillion in automatic spending cuts are triggered beginning Jan. 3, 2013.

After weeks of silence about their closed-door negotiations, super committee members are now talking openly about why the other side is to blame for derailing a plan.

For Democrats, it’s that Republicans wouldn’t give enough on taxes for the rich. Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, co-chair of the panel, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that she’s still “willing to talk to any Republican who says, ‘Look, my country is more important; this pile of bills is not going to go away.... We need to cross that divide.’ ”

For Republicans, it’s that Democrats wouldn’t give enough on cutting the growth of spending on entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

“Until we have the stroke of midnight I suppose on Monday, as long as we have members who have an opportunity to continue to talk, we’ll continue to talk,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas, the panel’s other co-chair, told “Fox News Sunday.”

Both added that Congress would have other opportunities to fix the problem. “It wasn’t so much of a failure as it was a failure to seize an opportunity,” Representative Hensarling said. If not this opportunity, “this nation better seize another one, or we will be in big economic trouble,” he added.

Over nearly three months of negotiations, the panel held four public meetings, amid clamoring from public-interest groups to open up the full panel’s deliberations to public scrutiny. Apart from those public meetings, it now appears that the full panel never met.

Instead, members pursued ad hoc negotiations while consulting with party leaders, but without any authority to commit their respective caucuses on a vast array of options. While Congress gave the committee unusual powers to bring a plan to the floor without amendment or filibuster, it did not create unusual powers to come to an agreement.

“All the nickname [“super”] did was raise expectations about what the committee could and would do,” says Stan Collender, a congressional budget expert at Qorvis Communications in Washington.

Over the past three months, other members of Congress called on the panel to reduce the deficit, stimulate the economy, reform the tax code, and extend expiring tax provisions. “This was a super committee and not a superhero, and it was always absurd to think that it could do all of those things when any one of them by themselves would have been close to impossible,” Mr. Collender adds.

President Obama, out of Washington until early Monday morning, could provide an 11th-hour assist by getting involved – as he did in resolving an impasse over extending the Bush tax cuts last December. However, this would be a late entry. The president has been largely absent from the debt talks, opting instead to step up a public campaign against a “do nothing” Congress.

“As a case study of a broken political system, you’ll never see a clearer case than the Congressional budgetary Super Committee,” writes Thomas Ferguson, an expert on money in politics and a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, in an e-mail.

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