With Deadline Looming, (Tiny) Signs of Progress for Supercommittee

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, left, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., right, co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, sit together as the supercommittee meets on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 1, 2011.

Just when everyone had written off Congress as too dysfunctional to produce a bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction, the supercommittee is actually showing a pulse.  Up until this week there was nary a wonk, flack or politico in Washington who thought the supercommittee would succeed. But late Monday, nine days before the Thanksgiving deadline, negotiators seemed to be coming off their hard-line positions.

The first sign of progress arrived last week when both sides presented competing plans. Democrats wanted $1 trillion in new tax revenues coupled with $1 trillion in cuts; Republicans countered with $500 billion in new revenues and $750 billion in cuts. Seven out of the committee’s 12 members met last Monday night in Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus’’s hideaway in the Capitol. The attendees–Democrats Baucus, John Kerry and Chris Van Hollen, and Republicans Rob Portman, Pat Toomey, Dave Camp and Fred Upton–left the meeting hopeful, some of them for the first time.

After that, the process stalled. No groups have met since and the negotiations devolved into smaller one-on-one meetings. Failure to produce an agreement would trigger automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion from entitlements and the Pentagon. Given the market’s dire reaction to the August debt ceiling deal that created the committee and the widening debt crisis in Europe, few on Capitol Hill relish the idea of failure.

Lawmakers are well aware that the window to reach an agreement is rapidly closing. Any deal they produce must be scored by the Congressional Budget Office and then adjusted appropriately. It must be made public by Monday, Nov. 21 – 48 hours before the deadline for the committee to vote — or it risks losing privileged, or filibuster-proof, status. Which means the real deadline is less than a week away, which is often how long it takes the CBO to score a bill of this size.

The looming deadline has prompted some promising movement. One possibility is that the committee punts much of its responsibilities down the road — a classic Washington maneuver. In this scenario, some revenues — say, $100 billion — are paired with equal or greater cuts up front. The committee then leaves instructions or guidelines for the regular committees of jurisdiction — Senate Finance and House Ways & Means for taxes, Appropriations for spending — on how to find the rest of the savings.

Aides close to the process give a range of predictions, from confidence that a deal could be reached to cautious optimism. Even the most cynical say that a deal is more likely now than it’s ever been, even if those odds remain below 50%. On Monday House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he believes the committee will succeed. “I think they will reach an agreement by the deadline,” the Virginia Republican told reporters. And over the weekend President Obama called on negotiators to step up. “My hope is that over the next several days, the congressional leadership on the supercommittee go ahead and bite the bullet and do what needs to be done because the math won’t change,” Obama told reporters at a press conference in Hawaii. “There’s no magic formula. There are no magic beans that you can toss in the ground and suddenly a bunch of money grows on trees. We’ve got to just go ahead and do the responsible thing.”

While virtually everyone still predicts the committee will deadlock — and it’s hard to tell if there’s life in the process or if these are rigor mortis twitches –odds of a deal, however slim, are edging up from zero. As Congress has proven again and again, the details of a deal can easily unravel it – especially given Speaker John Boehner’s freshman class. That said, Congress only ever works on a tight deadline, so if a deal’s to be hard, this is the moment.