The supercommittee was created during this summer’s showdown over the federal debt limit, part of a two-stage strategy to restrain borrowing by at least $2.2 trillion over the next decade. About $1 trillion in savings was identified up front in the form of limits on spending that Congress appropriates annually. The committee was tasked with finding the rest, with the threat of $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts as an incentive to compromise.
Appointed by the four congressional leaders, the 12-member panel was given extraordinarily broad power to act. Any part of the budget was fair game. And if a majority of supercommittee members agreed on a plan, the House and the Senate would have to take it up for a vote without making changes.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Republicans considered the panel a “golden opportunity to change the direction of the nation’s fiscal trajectory and create a better environment for job growth.” In the end, however, the hard work of panel members was thwarted by the same political pressures that prevented Obama from sealing a far-reaching deficit deal this summer that he was negotiating with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Although Republicans offered to raise taxes by $300 billion over the next decade, they insisted on conditions that all but guaranteed that the wealthy would not be hit hard. And Democrats refused to agree to deep cuts in spending on health care for the poor and the elderly unless the rich were forced to make greater sacrifices.
By late last week, hope for a deal had all but faded, leaving panel members to spend a desultory weekend talking with their aides and trekking to TV studios for recrimination-filled appearances on Sunday talk shows. On Monday, several members took one last stab.
“Both sides are feeling angst and greater angst at the possibility of no agreement,” Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said as he left a midday meeting in the office of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). “So they’re working harder, more creatively, to see what can be accomplished.”
In addition to Baucus and Kerry, the bipartisan huddle included Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and three Republicans: Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.) and Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Rob Portman (Ohio).
Although the last-minute talks offered a ray of hope — a high school civics class from Georgia on a tour of the Capitol spent 40 minutes waiting outside Kerry’s office — aides to both parties said a deal was never close. But as late as 4:40 p.m., Kerry was still hoping for a bargain.
“Well, I can’t go into the details of it,” the senator told a TV reporter. “It’s sort of a last-ditch effort to try to see if we could find a way to solve America’s problem here.”
Kerry said the negotiators were “waiting for the chairs to speak” about whether the latest proposal would fly. Five minutes later, Murray and Hensarling issued their statement pulling the plug.
“I’m deeply disappointed with this outcome. We all are. This was an historic moment to do something big, bold, and balanced that demanded shared sacrifice to put our country first,” Kerry said later in a written statement.
“It’s too easy just to say that Washington is broken or Congress is broken,” he said. “These issues aren’t going away; in fact they are becoming more urgent.”
Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.