Dana Milbank
Opinion writer November 21, 2011

It was the political equivalent of breaking up by e-mail.

The supercommittee could have been the most celebrated relationship of our time: An equal pairing of Democrats and Republicans that was to have come up with the budget plan that would bring domestic tranquility for years to come. But the relationship never got past first base, and the committee members ended it Monday afternoon in a most perfunctory manner.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

At 4:24 p.m., just after the markets closed, House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, emerged from the office of Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican. “We expect an electronic statement from the co-chairs shortly,” he announced.

Twenty minutes later, this digital Dear John letter landed in inboxes across the capital.

“After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline,” the co-chairs, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), stated.

The second part of that sentence was obvious to all who had been paying attention. The supercommittee, despite months of hope and hype, had made no progress toward an agreement. But the first part of that sentence was dubious: Hard work and intense deliberations? They had a few public hearings for show, but never got close to a deal and hadn’t even held a negotiating session in weeks.

The supercommittee’s final day was typical. Both sides had acknowledged that their differences were irreconcilable, but they went through the motions anyway – not because they expected a breakthrough but so they could give the appearance that they had talked right up until their deadline.

In the end, they dashed off an e-mail, and Kyl, the committee member who had done more than any other to assure its failure, tried to slip away from his office without being noticed. Kyl’s spokesman emerged from the office to take questions, and while reporters were talking to him, Kyl and his security agent slipped out a back door and ran for the elevator.

“Why did it fail?” a reporter shouted. Kyl didn’t answer. The elevator doors closed on the cameras and microphones.

It failed because Democrats wouldn’t agree to cuts in Social Security and Medicare without Republican concessions on taxes. Republicans wouldn’t budge, and so the committee was doomed from the start.

That was already certain Monday morning, as Kyl and Democratic counterpart John Kerry circled the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, visiting the various cable networks to assign blame to the other side.

“Our Democratic friends,” Kyl told Fox News, thought “this was the opportunity to raise taxes, and it didn’t matter what we proposed.”

“We put a hugely reasonable amount — with very painful reductions -- in it, and they said, ‘no,’” Kerry countered on MSNBC.

And yet the committee members pretended through the day that a deal might still be within reach – but a cursory inspection revealed this to be an act. Only seven of the 12 committee members were participating, and Democrats and Republicans were in the same room for little more than two hours.

In the hallway outside of Kerry’s office on the second floor of Russell, a group of high school students from Atlanta watched about 50 reporters watching the closed door, waiting for a committee member to emerge.

Every so often, a member or staffer would appear with a grim face and a crucial update, such as, “still working,” or “I wouldn’t hold my breath,” or “we’ll see.”

The Republicans left the “negotiations” just after 1 p.m., never to return. While Democratic committee members continued to caucus in Kerry’s office, Republicans held their own session up one flight in Kyl’s office. Out in the hallway there, reporters joked that the senators were using the time to dump their stock holdings.

Even at 4 p.m., Kerry was still play acting. “What do you have to say to the American people that are watching and looking at this committee about to fail?” a reporter asked.

“Well, that’s your presumption,” Kerry replied.

Minutes later, the presumption was confirmed, to nobody’s surprise. “Despite our inability to bridge the committee’s significant differences,” the co-chairs announced in their statement, “we end this process united in our belief that the nation’s fiscal crisis must be addressed.”

Thanks, Captains Obvious. But you were the ones who were supposed to address it.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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