The super committee appeared destined to fail today, as the trickle of tourists milling about the Capitol outnumbered the panel's members and staffers while leaders of both parties were poised to disengage entirely from last-minute talks.
With no imminent government shutdown or default, there was no sense of urgency as there had been when Congress approved a six-month continuing resolution in April and legislation to raise the debt ceiling in August. Just days before the super committee's statutorily imposed deadline for a deal, there were no round-the-clock meetings, no emergency caucuses, no shuttling back-and-forth of staffers.
Instead, there was only Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), dressed in weekend casual wear, fielding phone calls in his second floor office suite before emerging to speak briefly with reporters. Elsewhere in the building, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) met to talk — but about what is unclear.
Republicans had a conference call early in the morning and Democrats were scheduled to have one later in the evening, but mostly, everyone just seemed to go about the weekend like normal. Super committee member Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), for example, attended the Montgomery County Thanksgiving parade.
After what Kyl called a "last-ditch" effort from Republican leadership — a $643 billion package made up mostly of spending cuts and miscellaneous fees — was summarily rejected by Democrats Thursday, talks both within the committee and among Congressional leaders stalled.
"The last thing we had scored [by the Congressional Budget Office] was kind of a last-ditch effort to say, 'Look, if you can't accomplish anything else, can we at least do spending reductions and revenue receipts that don't have anything to do with health care, entitlements,'" Kyl said this afternoon. "We thought maybe we could just focus on things we had talked about before, and thought we had pretty good agreement on. ... That was a totally scored proposal."
"We'd still like to see it accepted," Kyl added.
The $643 billion fallback plan was an informal offer from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earlier in the week. The idea was to find a smaller deal to minimize the pain of the $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board cuts that would be enacted in January 2013 if the group comes to no agreement at all. Of the $643 billion, $316 billion would have been discretionary cuts, including $100 billion from defense, $98 billion in interest savings and $229 billion in revenues and fees. Of that revenue figure, only $3 billion would be from tax-related changes, with Republicans offering to eliminate the corporate jet tax — a favorite provision for Democrats to highlight as an example about unfair tax breaks to America's wealthiest.
According to sources familiar with negotiations, Democrats would not accept the $643 billion package unless it also included approximately $150 billion to $200 billion in tax-based revenue, which was a non-starter for the GOP. The point of the more modest package, Republican aides said, was that neither party's sacred cows, taxes for the GOP and entitlements for Democrats, would be impacted significantly. There were a few other revenue ideas on the table, including a gas tax break, but Republicans said they could not move as far as Democrats wanted.
That Republicans had considered revenues in previous offerings, such as a plan floated by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) last week that including $250 billion in tax revenue, marked a modest policy shift for the party. When super committee Co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) addressed the full Republican House Conference late last week, he even made the case that doing pro-growth tax reform in the super committee now would be preferable to waiting until January 2013, when the Bush-era tax cuts are slated to expire. Toomey's plan included an extension.
According to multiple sources tracking the committee, in one of his first meetings with Co-Chairwoman Patty Murray Hensarling suggested the panel consider three tracks: a "big deal" worth more than the $1.2 trillion required of the committee; a path that hit that target; and a smaller, mostly cuts-based package that would reduce the sequester in case the group deadlocked. Murray, a Washington Democrat, seemed cool to the third option because in the deals to avert both the government shutdown and default, Republicans had forced Democrats to accept deals that were cuts-only.
Though there was little hope of a deal in the Capitol Saturday, there was still some tempered optimism that months of negotiations would not be an exercise in complete futility.
"We've done a huge amount of work and however this comes out, that work is not going to go to waste. I could show you $1 trillion in deficit reduction right now if you want me to. And it's been scored," Kyl said. "There have been many, many different ideas scored by CBO over the course of the last couple months — a lot of ideas, some sort of complete plans, others pieces of things that could be inserted."
The super committee would need to send any agreement to the CBO by Monday in order to have enough time for the office to score a deal before a final vote. The committee's bylaws require a CBO score for the vote to be held. Short of an agreement, it's possible the panel would hold a public hearing and vote on competing plans as a symbolic gesture. For the panel to hold such a hearing, its leaders would need to make an announcement by Monday.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to return to Washington tomorrow after a nine day international trip. But sources indicate that he is unlikely to engage directly with the panel. To date, his most public involvement was two separate phone calls to Hensarling and Murray last Friday.
A White House official, however, insisted that the president would like to see an agreement.
"Avoiding accountability and kicking the can down the road is how Washington got into this deficit problem in the first place, so Congress needs to do its job here and make the kind of tough choices to live within its means that American families make every day," White House spokesman Amy Brundage said in a statement.
Steven T. Dennis and John Stanton contributed to this report.