Late this morning, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) gathered a handful of Democrats and Republicans in his Senate office for an hours-long discussion of a last-ditch proposal. With dozens of reporters and camera crews outside, the panel’s three Senate Democrats, along with Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) as well as Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), mulled over the Kerry “Hail Mary” plan.
A GOP aide briefed by lawmakers in the meeting said Republicans believed Kerry’s offer to be little more than a “reiteration” of previous Democratic proposals that used “weird gimmick[s]” to meet the target for cuts. The aide also noted that Kerry did not appear to have Democratic consensus behind the plan.
But a Democratic aide familiar with the talks rejected that characterization, arguing that Kerry had the support of his colleagues. Another Democratic source said that “Republicans are simply not budging” on the major issue of taxes.
The squabbles over how to characterize the final bipartisan meeting of a panel already on life support highlighted the fatal flaw in the group’s design: Democrats and Republicans never had a strong incentive to move off their respective positions on taxes and entitlements. With no imminent threat of shutdown or default, Democrats refused another bargain to extend Bush-era tax cuts, and Republicans were free to continue pushing for structural reform in entitlement programs while offering only modest concessions on taxes. The super committee, it seems, was destined to deadlock like every other deficit panel before it, from the Biden group to President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to the Senate “gang of six.”
Meanwhile, at the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney defended Obama’s participation — or lack thereof — in the talks, while also blaming failure on Republican intransigence on taxes. Carney danced around numerous questions today about whether the president should have been more engaged, alternately denying Obama was detached and explaining that, by design, the committee didn’t have a seat at the table for the administration.
Carney also noted that the White House had proposed its own plan in September and that Obama called Hensarling and Murray before beginning his trip to Asia late last week to encourage them to reach agreement.
Moreover, the fallback position of the $1.2 trillion trigger was agreed upon among the president, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in August. So regardless of whether the president was intimately involved in talks throughout the fall, he had a significant hand in the deficit reduction outcome, should it stand.
On that note, Carney emphasized that Congress still has 13 months to reach a balanced deficit reduction deal to replace the sequester, but he warned again that the White House does not support nixing the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts without an alternative that forces the wealthy to pay more.
“Instead of pointing fingers and playing the blame game, Congress should act, fulfill its responsibility,” Carney said. “[Congress] needs to hold itself to account. And also should not then try to undo the consequences of their own failure, the consequences that they themselves passed into law. They should do the right thing and come together.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.