With Democrats deriding the premise and some Republicans doubtful at the prospects for success, the House voted to create a new Bipartisan Working Group on Deficit Reduction and Economic Growth on Tuesday evening.
Just hours after GOP leaders floated the concept with rank-and-file Republicans at their weekly meeting, the House approved, 224-197, the bill to have 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans from both chambers hash out a litany of disagreements over government spending and debt.
Two Democrats voted with Republicans on the creation of the working group, while five Republicans broke party ranks to stand in opposition.
At first blush, the idea of working group related to fiscal 2014 funding and the debt limit seemed noncontroversial enough, considering both sides have acknowledged the need to start talking.
"The purpose of this bill is to create a place, an avenue, for us to get together, the White House and the Senate. So far, Senate Democrats have said, 'No way, it's my way or the highway,' as has the president," said Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. "And so we keep attempting on the Republican side to get these people to come to the table so we can talk and try to work with some solution to these huge problems that we're facing."
One House Republican, speaking to CQ Roll Call on background, said the bill was a no-brainer: "It's what Harry Reid has wanted all along," he said, referencing the Democratic Senate majority leader from Nevada.
Several Republicans told CQ Roll Call that, while they weren't necessarily prepared to vote against the bill, there was good reason to be skeptical that the new panel will run into the same problems that plagued the 2011 Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or supercommittee.
Indeed, the form and function of the proposed "working group" bore a striking resemblance to the last bipartisan, bicameral effort to resolve a fiscal crisis. Despite the threat that a failure would lead to automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, the members of the original supercommittee failed to meet their November 2011 deadline to come up with a plan to shave $1.2 trillion from the deficit..
"I didn't find the supercommittee a particularly useful device," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the Appropriations Committee. "At least this is an attempt to jump-start some sort of dialogue, I'm not convinced it's the right mechanism.
"Sooner or later, there will be some bipartisan group that is successful," he went on. "Whether it's this one or not, I don't know."
Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., said he wasn't thrilled with the proposal. "I think the committees of jurisdiction should be dealing with these issues," he said.
Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, had high hopes for the working group.
"What do I envision?" Sessions mused on the chamber floor. "I envision a TV would be in the room, the American people could be a part of these discussions and see how much progress can be made between the Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats, and House Republicans and House Democrats on all these important issues.
"And to hold these members accountable," he said.
Mindful of the last working group's legacy, Republicans tried to steer rhetoric away from comparisons to the supercommittee, while Democrats slammed the GOP bill.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the bill "an absurd proposal," and asked, rhetorically, "Who writes this stuff?"
"I expected better," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the Rules Committee. "Another supercommittee for crying out loud? Look what happened to the last one."
Slaughter's Rules Committee colleague, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., twice called the working group "Supercommittee II: The Wrath of Cruz." It was a reference to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has been a leading proponent of the GOP's decision to demand that Obamacare be defunded in exchange for a temporary spending bill to fund the government.
Democrats also scoffed at the bill's lack of a timetable, and that its mission statement did not include opportunities for discussions on revenue and in closing tax loopholes for the purposes of deficit reduction.
"That is a farce by definition," said Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Democrats had been hopeful that Republicans would emerge from their closed-door meeting on Tuesday morning with a new plan to end the current fiscal impasse. At least, they hoped Republicans would consent to passing a short-term continuing resolution or debt limit extension to keep things running while negotiations got under way. More ideally, they wanted Republicans to appoint conferees to merge the House and Senate-passed budgets.
With the bill's passage in the House, the ball is now in the Senate's court. But a scathing statement from Sen. Patty Murray — the current Budget chairwoman and former supercommittee co-chairwoman — gave some hint of its fate.
"If this is a joke, the American people aren't laughing," she said. "The last supercommittee failed because Republicans insisted on protecting the rich from paying a penny more in taxes, but at least then the goal was to avoid a crisis before it happened. The Republican gimmick is intended to keep two crises going while they again refuse to make any concessions."