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Partisanship Hurts Deficit Panel Work

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer spoke at a bipartisan news conference held Wednesday by almost 150 Members to call on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to come to a deal. The panel, however, appears to still be struggling for agreement.

Updated: 7:43 p.m.

Partisan sniping, ultimatums and strategic leaks overtook the super committee Wednesday as the troubled panel struggled to agree on a way to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion just seven days before its deadline.

Facing charges that they had not responded to a more-than-week-old plan from Republicans, super committee Democrats disclosed that on Friday they had agreed to many of the pieces of the GOP’s most recent proposal.

According to Democratic aides familiar with the talks, Democrats on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction offered to accept pieces of the GOP framework proposed last week by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). The Republicans had offered $401 billion in new revenues and $876 billion in spending reductions, including $275 billion in health entitlement savings — figures Democrats said Wednesday they were prepared to agree on.

But Democrats proposed four major changes: no increase in the Medicare retirement age; no change in the way the consumer price index is calculated; no permanent extension of Bush-era tax cuts; and consideration of some of President Barack Obama’s jobs proposals, including unemployment benefit insurance, a payroll tax holiday and infrastructure projects.

The news of a modified offer falls in line with previous reports that Democrats were seeking to craft a deal by negotiating details already on the table. Sources said Co-Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) made the offer directly to Co-Chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). Hensarling’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sources also indicated that there was not Democratic consensus around Murray’s offering but that it moved forward with the support of a majority of Democratic members, including Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Meanwhile, Republicans continued to insist Wednesday that Democrats are unwilling to address structural entitlement reform without significant tax increases.

Regardless of whether each side believed the other was acting in good faith, the Democratic leak Wednesday revealed that the two sides are still far apart as they quickly approach the Nov. 23 deadline.

Following a Democratic morning meeting, a tight-lipped Murray brushed off GOP complaints that she and her colleagues have not presented a new plan to the GOP members.

“I don’t know what they mean by that,” a clearly angry Murray said.

When asked whether a framework for a deal needed to be in place Wednesday, Murray said, “The hours are short. The hours are very short” before disappearing into a Senate elevator.

Indeed, with one week to go, the super committee appeared to be even further from a deal than it was when the week began.

Early Tuesday, it appeared the embattled group had gained momentum, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) throwing their weight behind the talks, meeting with each other and then with their respective members.

But the good will vanished after Hensarling took to national television Tuesday night to say Republicans “have gone as far as we feel we can go” and that “any penny” of new revenues would not be acceptable.

By Wednesday, Hensarling’s comments became a full-out distraction. Though Republicans and Democrats met among themselves throughout the day, it appeared everyone was more focused on interpreting what the Texas Republican’s comments meant for the future of the talks.

Hensarling held an impromptu press conference with reporters — called 10 minutes in advance — in front of his Cannon House Office Building suite. He dug in on his stance that the GOP side could not budge from its $1.2 trillion offer, which included $250 billion in tax code reform.

“We have had multiple offers on the table. You know about the one. ... Frankly, there have been iterations of that offer on the table for quite some time. Now I’m not going to negotiate against myself. I’m not moving this particular offer,” Hensarling said before the GOP’s second meeting of the day. “I’m waiting for the Democrats to put fundamental reform on the table. ... That is one offer we have put on the table that they can accept.

“We’re not changing this offer we have on the table,” Hensarling continued.

Before Hensarling’s press conference, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who serves on the panel, said that in a private meeting the Texan “was a little distressed at the way his comment was being taken.”

When pressed on what Hensarling had intended to say, Kyl replied, “his point was that’s it, that’s the offer and it’s not going to be increased.”

It was unclear what Hensarling was distressed about, but his comments to CNBC could potentially run afoul of his leadership’s efforts to make clear to the public that the GOP is not walking away from the talks.

Burned by breakdowns in negotiations over the debt ceiling and last spring’s continuing resolution, Boehner has made it clear that he intends to keep Republicans at the table until the eleventh hour to avoid any perception that the party is scuttling the super committee’s work.

Democrats have been equally unwilling to take the fall for a breakdown in the negotiations.

The continued charge from Republicans that Democrats had not been at the table since last Monday, when the two parties exchanged plans in a smaller group, put Democrats on the defensive. But it also gave Democrats a window to claim that Republicans are not negotiating in good faith.

Murray and Hensarling, by all accounts, have maintained a good working relationship throughout the super committee negotiating process, but it was clear the Republican’s statements had touched a nerve. And other super committee Democrats were much less reserved in their critique.

A clearly frustrated Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had a sharp rebuke for Hensarling, telling a knot of reporters Wednesday that Hensarling’s declaration “isn’t as helpful as sitting at the table and trying to work through these things.”

Van Hollen, who has been a favorite negotiating partner for super committee Republicans, said Hensarling’s comments raise serious questions about the Republicans’ commitment to the talks.

“The question is whether they’ve said, ‘Take it or leave it,’ and don’t want to negotiate,” Van Hollen said.

Editor's Note:

This article updates the print version to include more details on the latest dealings by the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.

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