Obama administration quietly bracing for debt supercommittee failure

November 15, 2011

White House officials are quietly bracing for “supercommittee” failure, with advisers privately saying they are pessimistic that the 12-member Congressional panel will find a way to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit as required.

In public, however, the official administration stance is that failure is not an option.

“I don’t think it makes sense to anticipate their failure,” White House Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew said Tuesday. “I think it’s important that they succeed. The president made that clear in the calls he made on Friday.”

President Obama called the Democratic and Republican leaders of the supercommittee from Air Force One on his way out of town last week for an extended trip to Hawaii and Asia, and he has continued to urge action in his remarks on the road.

Obama has stopped short of issuing a blanket veto threat if the committee tries to undo the severe cuts that would take effect in 2013 if an agreement is not reached. Obama has simply said that Congress “must not shirk its responsibilities” and, in a news conference from Hawaii, said he would not comment on the potential for a veto.

If lawmakers on the committee fail to reach agreement by next week’s deadline, Obama may be forced to step back into the fray after taking a steadfastly hands-off approach to the debt talks over the last few weeks.

Perhaps mindful of the long odds of success, Obama has largely left the negotiations alone, after issuing his blueprint in September for more than $3 trillion in savings. “It would be hard [for Obama] to do more. He’s put a proposal down,” lobbyist Steve Elmendorf said. “People know where he stands.”

At the same time, several Democrats said, any greater involvement by Obama at this stage could have a toxic effect as Democrats and Republicans try to find middle ground. If the president were more deeply engaged, it could force Republicans into a reactionary role.

“He doesn’t want to do anything that would detract from getting the votes,” former House minority leader Dick Gephardt, a Democrat, said. Still, Gephardt said, referring to the members of the supercommittee: “If they don’t do anything, then I think the president will try to enter more forcefully.”

With time running out — the deadline is Nov. 23 — it is unclear whether the lawmakers can strike a bargain, and, if they do, whether that deal will pass Congress by the next deadline, Dec. 23. In a potential preview of how he could respond to anything short of a compromise, Obama has been railing against Congress for its partisan gridlock. At a campaign event in Hawaii on Monday, he made the pitch that “change” takes more than a single presidential term to achieve.

“It’s going to take a few more years to meet the challenges that have been a decade in the making. And I think the American people understand that,” Obama told donors at the Aulani Disney Resort. “What they don’t understand is leaders who refuse to take action. They don’t understand a Congress that can’t seem to move with a sense of urgency about the problems that America is facing.”

Staff writer Zachary Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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