Aides in both parties said the prospects for a bigger deal were fading rapidly, and that the panel committee could be left struggling just to meet its minimum target.
“In a word, it’s stolid. Not stalled, but stolid,” said supercommittee member Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, suggesting that talks had slowed to a crawl.
As GOP supercommittee members huddled Thursday afternoon with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), GOP aides and lawmakers close to the process said they were still trying to horsetrade with Democrats over revenue increases and cuts to entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid.
In a roundtable with reporters, Boehner suggested that the door remains open to significant tax increases if Democrats would agree to “real reform on the entitlement side.” But so far, he said, “they want more revenue than what we’re willing to give, and they’re not willing to do as much entitlement reform as we’d like to do.”
Democrats argued that they had made politically painful concessions on entitlements in the $3 trillion package they offered last week and in subsequent negotiations. A senior Democratic aide said those concessions include everything President Obama had put on the table in talks with Boehner this summer, including switching to a less-generous measure of inflation, which would reduce annual increases in Social Security benefits, and raising the eligibility age for Medicare — ideas that have drawn fire from liberals and labor leaders.
The Republican counteroffer, by contrast, contained no tax increases. Instead, it offered to generate new revenue solely through economic growth and through the less-generous inflation index, which would push people into higher tax brackets faster. Until Republicans agree to significant taxes, several Democrats said, the supercommittee would remain at a standstill.
“We feel the ball’s in their court,” said a senior Democratic aide, who like other aides asked not to be named to describe the closed-door negotiations. “They need to put a number on what they’re willing to do on revenue that at least matches where they were in talks between Boehner and the president.”
During this summer’s battle over the debt limit, Boehner offered to accept as much as $800 billion in new taxes over the next decade as part of a rewrite of the tax code that would wipe out expensive incentives and deductions, and lower rates overall.
In his session with reporters, Boehner refused to embrace that figure. There was more discouraging news a few hours later, when 33 Senate Republicans released a letter urging the supercommittee to adopt a plan that would rewrite the tax code “with no net tax increase.”
Among the signatories were Tom Coburn (Okla.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Mike Crapo (Idaho) — the three GOP members of the bipartisan “Gang of Six,” who released a plan this summer that would raise more than $2 trillion in new taxes in the next decade.
“Democrats have put real skin in the game and have taken a few hits from the left just for doing so,” said one Democratic aide close to the committee. “On the other hand, Republicans are cowered in their corner with Grover Norquist warning them that they better not get involved.”
Norquist is the GOP strategist who developed an anti-tax pledge signed by virtually every Republican in Congress. Asked Thursday about Norquist’s role in the debate, Boehner seemed flummoxed, pausing for nearly five full seconds before responding.
“Listen, our focus here is on jobs,” Boehner said. “It’s not often I’m asked about some random person in America.”
Later, Boehner said that Norquist, “like millions of Americans, recognizes that raising taxes is not good for the economy.”