The absence of an imminent crisis helps explain the lack of urgency on Capitol Hill this week, despite a Thanksgiving deadline approaching. With a vast ideological gulf separating the Republican House and the Democratic Senate on taxes and social spending, a mere deadline may no longer be enough to spur compromise. Over the past year, Congress has needed the threat of full-scale chaos to force action.
An impending government shutdown forced the first budget deal, in April. The risk of the nation’s first default on its debt forced the second deal, in August. The supercommittee, created as part of the debt-limit agreement, was designed to avoid that kind of cataclysmic backstop.
As a result, hope for an agreement appeared all but lost Thursday. Even normally optimistic aides close to the process conceded that it may be time to pull the plug. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who has worked as hard as any of the 12 supercommittee members to reach accord, was dour in an interview and highly critical of his colleagues in Congress.
“We’re at a time in American history where everybody's afraid — afraid of losing their job — to move toward the center. A deadline is insufficient,” he said. “You’ve got to have people who are willing to move.”
As he spoke, Baucus grew angrier and more emotional, invoking the memory of his nephew and more than 4,000 other Americans who have died in the Iraq war.
“Compared with the thousands who have given their lives in service to this country, I think it’s tragic and it speaks volumes” that politicians in Congress and the White House are “too worried about their jobs in order to reach an agreement,” Baucus said. “Because if we could reach an agreement, it’s going to upset a lot of people on both sides. But not enough people are willing to do it, even though it would be the right thing for the country.”
Talks continued to limp along Thursday, with the panel’s Democrats and Republicans spending another day in separate meetings. A bipartisan group gathered briefly Thursday evening, but there was no immediate sign of progress.
If the supercommittee fails, many lawmakers and senior aides say a debt-reduction deal is unlikely to be completed until after the November 2012 elections. That’s when Congress will face the prospect of not only unprecedented cuts to the Pentagon and other agency budgets, but also the expiration of George W. Bush-era tax cuts — an outcome that would raise taxes for virtually every American in January 2013.
Some Democrats say they would have more leverage to force Republicans to consider taxes as part of a debt-reduction deal as that tax increase — one of the largest in U.S. history — drew closer. Republicans, aware of that tactical disadvantage, have fought to extend the Bush tax cuts as part of supercommittee negotiations.