So far much of the analysis of the supercommittee’s task has focused on two options facing the panel: either come to an agreement on at least $1.5 trillion in deficit savings over the next decade or pull the “trigger” on $1.2 trillion in cuts, equally divided between defense and domestic discretionary spending.
But there’s a third option for the panel. And it could be the most realistic – not to mention the most politically-appealing -- one for both parties.
According to this “third way” option, lawmakers could agree on a deal that makes significant cuts but falls short of the supercommittee’s $1.5 trillion goal.
If that’s the case, then the trigger would come into play, but it would apply to the difference between $1.2 trillion and whatever agreement the committee was able to reach.
So, if the supercommittee were to pass a deal that achieved only $800 billion in deficit savings, then the total savings would still amount to $1.2 trillion, but the $400 billion difference would be an across-the-board cut (half defense, half domestic discretionary) called for by the trigger.
As House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office explained in a blog post just after last week’s debt deal was finalized:
“The final agreement sets up a new sequestration process to cut spending across-the-board – and ensure that any debt limit increase is met with greater spending cuts – IF the Joint Committee fails to achieve at least $1.2 trillion. If this happens, then the President may request up to $1.2 trillion for a debt limit increase (note: this is less than the $1.5 trillion cited above). Assuming the President is able to increase the debt limit by $1.2 trillion (contingent upon the congressional disapproval process), then across-the-board spending cuts would result that would equal the difference between $1.2 trillion and the deficit reduction enacted as a result of the Joint Committee.”
Why might this be a good thing for both sides politically?
For Republicans, this option would allow lawmakers to argue that they achieved the deepest cuts that were politically possible. And while the cuts to defense spending included in the “trigger” would not be ideal, Republicans could argue that the “third way” option makes those Pentagon cuts smaller than they otherwise would have been.
Democrats could make the case that the “third way” option allows them to protect the programs they have most fiercely championed. And, it would be less severe than a full across-the-board cut.
Another plus for both sides: By coming to an agreement on at least several hundred billion dollars’ worth of cuts, the panel’s members could avoid appearing as though they’ve failed in their mission to work in a bipartisan way to solve the debt problem.
A “grand bargain,” while touted by all sides as the ultimate goal of the debt talks, appears even less likely to be agreed upon by the supercommittee – which faces intense political pressure and potentially an open committee process -- than it did in the closed-door negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House.
There is one big political caveat in a “third way” deal, especially for Democrats. If the Republican supercommittee members object to the inclusion of any tax increases in a deal, Democrats could face a backlash from members of their base for agreeing to even a small cuts-only package, just as they did earlier this month.
But for those Democrats, the political consequences of not reaching a deal could be worse than striking an imperfect one.