But Kerry, who has sought to remain publicly optimistic throughout the process showed more than a flicker of doubt Friday. "We're still working. I hope we can get there but I don't know at this point" he said.
Republicans, however, defended the offer.
"While we continue to work toward the full $1.2 [trillion], Republicans believe we should at minimum act on the items where we all agree. So, yesterday, [we] presented Democrats a fallback option with a $643 billion package of mandatory cuts and fees that had been previously discussed and received bipartisan support," a GOP aide familiar with the exchange said. "There was nothing in the package that Democrats could call controversial."
The news of back-channel discussions between leaders came during a flurry of meetings between members of the committee. Thursday's meetings lasted well into the night, intraparty sessions have continued daily, and the panel's Senators, with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), met in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Room this morning.
But panel member Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said today that while he is still pushing for a big deal allowing automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, to take place would not be a failure. He said that $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction would be a step forward no matter what form it comes in.
"Sequestration will give us progress whether we like it or not. I'd rather have a human hand attached to the progress than, as I said before, the blunt edge of a guillotine," he said. But he added, "I'm not giving up the weekend just so I can watch sequestration take effect."
If the panel fails to produce a vote on a deal by Nov. 23, the automatic cuts would take effect starting in January 2013.
Lawmakers on the panel still express tempered optimism — "We're working hard" was the answer to most reporters' questions — but the chances for a deal continue to drop. Given the most recent exchange between Reid and Boehner, which Senate leadership aides characterized as "informal," the committee members are the ones who have to act, these same sources suggested.
It's unclear how much is actually happening behind closed doors. Van Hollen briefed the full Democratic House caucus this morning, with little detail on agreement and mostly to provide a platform for Members to ask questions. A source with knowledge of the meeting indicated that several Democrats appeared to believe that allowing automatic spending cuts to defense and domestic programs would be preferable to an agreement. All three super committee House Democrats — Van Hollen, Becerra and Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.) — were present at the caucus meeting, but it wasn't until they left the room that conversation became more candid.
According to several aides present at the meeting, Democratic rank-and-file Members began to openly criticize the Republican plan offered by Toomey. Democrats today offered to accept the basic GOP plan — a $1.2 trillion proposal, including $250 billion in tax code reform — but they wanted to take the Bush-era tax cuts and changes to the consumer price index off the table and add provisions from President Barack Obama's jobs package.