With one weekend left for the super committee to strike a deal, the embattled panel members appear as far apart as ever, with no late-night Capitol meetings planned for tonight and Democrats not even scheduled to gather in person on Saturday.
The standstill — despite insistence from Members all week that they would work around-the-clock until the deadline — is indicative of both the seriousness of the impasse and the reality that any deal in the next two days likely will have to come with either the strong blessing of leadership or directly from leadership itself.
Earlier today, reports leaked that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected an informal $640 billion offer from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday. And at least one super committee member said that if the panel does not produce a deal, it will not be a failure.
The package Reid rejected included $316 billion in cuts, $98 billion in interest savings, $3 billion from eliminating tax breaks for corporate jets and a variety of other non-tax revenue. But it was summarily dismissed by Democrats both in leadership and on the super committee. Although the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction technically has until Wednesday to reach an agreement, the panel needs to submit a package to the Congressional Budget Office by Monday to have a cost estimate available by the Nov. 23 deadline.
Reid and Boehner met privately on Tuesday and have been in conversation throughout the week. The increased involvement from leadership is both a sign that panel talks are in trouble and that the leaders are committed to finding agreement, despite the wide policy divides.
"If this is their last, best and final offer, we are in real trouble," said a Democratic aide close to the committee. "Not only does [it] fall flat of meeting the committee's deficit reduction goal, it fails every test of balance."
The panel's goal is to find at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings and the Republican proposal would address a little more than half that amount.
Democrats are slated to hold a conference call on Saturday, and Republicans also have a 10 a.m. phone call scheduled.
Sources indicated that there likely would be little-to-no news from the panel until Sunday morning, when several Members are scheduled to appear on morning talk shows. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) are booked to debate the committee's progress on NBC's "Meet the Press," Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) will be on CBS's "Face the Nation" and Co-Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is slated to appear on CNN's "State of the Union."
Following a mid-afternoon meeting of the six Democratic negotiators, Kerry dismissed Boehner's plan out of hand. "The idea of on Friday settling for half of what the American people need and what we were sent here to do is unacceptable to me," he said.
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.
Later in the morning, Van Hollen, Clyburn and Becerra briefed members of the Congressional Tri-Caucus on the status of negotiations. The Congressional Tri-Caucus is made up of members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Members leaving the meeting indicated that the smaller session was more detailed than the full caucus question-and-answer period, but still left lingering doubts and fears about what the super committee might do.
Each Tri-Caucus chairman spoke, reiterating that they would favor a revenue-heavy deal that protects Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Then super committee members spoke and fielded questions.
"They were a little bit more open," said a staffer who attended both meetings. "They didn't commit to anything or say anything too much. ... But we were asking more specific questions. We were having more of a discussion than a presentation."
Becerra said the meeting served to explain the deliberations to an anxious caucus.
"House Democrats are as anxious as anyone to try to get a clear sense of where the committee might end up, and we've had to explain to them so we can give them as best a sense of how things are proceeding without trying to violate any confidences of Members who are constantly continuing to work to see that we can get a deal," he said.
For the past several days GOP aides close to the negotiations have speculated that any deal that is ultimately cut will come between the super committee's six Republicans and Van Hollen, Kerry and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Going into the negotiations, the six Republicans agreed to work as a unit, meaning that either they will all go along with an agreement or they will all oppose it. But Democrats, from Murray to Clyburn, have said publicly they are united as well.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the contents of the plan Boehner offered to Reid.