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For the still-divided super committee, three-and-a-half months of work have boiled down to three days: The panel likely needs to submit a package to Congress’ budget scorekeeper by Monday to hold its Wednesday final vote.
But at this rate, it’s unclear whether the bicameral, bipartisan group of lawmakers will have anything to vote on, especially something that could garner the seven votes necessary to send a package to the full Congress for approval.
With deadlines hanging like daggers, the group tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years did not appear to be any closer today to an agreement than it was when this critical week started. Democrats and Republicans met multiple times among themselves, but the full committee still has not met behind closed doors since Oct. 31. And the panel’s lawmakers, once tight-lipped and optimistic, are now as vocal as ever in lobbing insults at the other side.
Members said today they will continue to meet throughout the weekend, even as their colleagues go home for Thanksgiving, well aware that the Congressional Budget Office will need a product from them by Monday. But the commitment to meet likely will not be enough to bridge the serious policy gaps remaining between the two parties on taxes and entitlements. The balance of cuts to revenues to reform has doomed every negotiating group preceding the super committee, and it has created what could be an insurmountable block for the current panel, despite open support from Congressional leaders.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) met Tuesday, and Reid especially has kicked up his involvement in the talks. But it’s unclear how involved the leaders are willing to get in the direct negotiations, and time is running out.
“Leadership is involved, definitely is involved,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said today. “Harry has met with John Boehner — that’s been reported. And he is really trying to reach out to him to spark closer cooperation. At this moment, I still think they’re struggling to find that. I hope I’m wrong.”
Meanwhile, the panel’s Democrats and Republicans stood by their most recent proposal today. Early last week, Republicans made a $1.2 trillion offer, including $250 billion in tax code reform, in exchange for a permanent extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, extended last winter by President Barack Obama.
Democrats on Friday accepted the basic targets of the GOP plan, with nearly $900 billion in spending reductions and $400 billion in revenues, but added several caveats. They asked that the Medicare retirement age remain the same; that the Bush-era tax cuts not be extended; that the chained Consumer Price Index be taken off the table; and that the panel consider certain provisions in Obama’s jobs package, like extending the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance benefits.
The Democratic position appeared to be a non-starter, and it was unclear today whether other plans had been exchanged. Republicans say they’re still waiting for a proposal that takes on serious structural reforms to entitlements.
“Well, we’re trying to figure out whether our Republican colleagues have drawn an absolute line in the sand with respect to their last proposal or whether they’re still willing to negotiate, and we believe we should not give up on negotiation,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said this afternoon. “We’re prepared to look for every option.”
The questions now are whether any option will be acceptable and whether leaders will force their contingents on the panel to take up what they think could clear both chambers.
Earlier today, Boehner told reporters that although he has had his “fair share of meetings” on the deficit talks, “the leaders have a responsibility” to ensure the process is successful.
His early morning optimism, however, was in contrast to the message coming from inside the negotiating room.
Super committee Co-Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray insisted that Democrats had offered a counterproposal to a GOP plan from last week and that any final deal must be “fair to working families and puts our country back to work — that’s the task that we have at hand.”
“I would hope that [there] is a way for [Republicans] to understand that they need to compromise, too, and come back to us and reach a deal, which is critically important today. But I think the challenge is that they have to resolve the differences on their side on revenue. And that’s what we’re waiting for,” the Washington Democrat added. “Once they resolve that and are willing to compromise as we have, then we can reach a deal.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed.
“If you refuse to take one red cent from the wealthiest people from our country and the price we have to pay is the diminished strength of the people of our country ... that just isn’t right,” the California Democrat said.
Those comments drew a strong rebuke from Boehner.
“There’s been exactly one proposal on the table, in the committee, and that came from the six Republican members,” he said, dismissing Murray’s counteroffer as merely one from members’ “individual” discussions.
“It is very clear to me there has not been one Democrat position. Not one,” he added.
If the sniping sounds familiar, it should: Over the past 10 months, Congressional leaders have fallen into a predictable pattern during tense policy debates. Whether it was the spring continuing resolution fight, this summer’s debt ceiling battle or the super committee negotiations, Democrats and Republicans have started their work behind closed doors, spending weeks working out deals on areas where the two sides are close.
As discussions move into thornier policy issues, the two sides have tended to step up leaks to the media and complaints about the other side being obstinate. Then, as the negotiations near deadlines, the two sides erupt into all-out partisan warfare.
So far the script appears to be holding firm, with Boehner accusing Democrats and the White House of not giving Republicans a concrete proposal, and Democratic leaders such as Murray charging Republicans with protecting the rich and punishing the elderly and poor.
At some point, someone will likely be accused of walking away.
In previous fights this year, Boehner and Reid have, at the last minute, cobbled together an agreement to avoid failure. But whether the pattern will repeat itself this time is an open question.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” Boehner said today. “The problem we’ve had all year is getting to yes.”