When Congress reconvenes in January, at the top of its agenda will be an effort by a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers to strike a deal that either finds savings in the federal budget or raises taxes -- or both.

Sound familiar?

Supercommittee co-chairs Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — neither was tapped to serve on the payroll tax conference committee. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The mandate of the 20 lawmakers tapped to serve on the payroll tax conference committee is somewhat similar to that of the bipartisan “supercommittee” that fell short in its effort to tame the debt this fall. But there are several key differences between the two panels.

Below is our comparison of the two committees. Thoughts? Questions? The comments section is open for business.


Mandate: Both panels were charged with finding a minimum amount in budget savings. The 12 members of the supercommittee were told to pinpoint at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings before a Thanksgiving deadline. The payroll tax conference committee must strike a deal before Feb. 29 on a nearly $170 billion package that extends the payroll tax holiday, unemployment benefits and the “doc fix,” which prevents a drop in reimbursement rates for doctors who see Medicare patients.

The new panel is likely to face the same hurdle that has played out in Congress for much of this year – where to cut the budget and where to turn for new revenue.

Timing: The supercommittee’s already-tough task was worsened by the conflicting schedules of the House and Senate -- for four weeks in October and November, for instance, both chambers were in session at the same time for only four days.

In the latest battle, lawmakers are similarly short on time. The House and Senate are in session at the same time for only four days in January. The President’s Day recess falls the week before the payroll tax extension expires on Feb. 29. So lawmakers have only about three weeks in February to work out an agreement.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Friday that negotiators could come back to Washington as early as next week to begin working on a deal, but there have been no scheduling announcements.

Secrecy: It’s also likely that the conference committee will conduct much of its work behind closed doors, just as the debt supercommittee did – a point of contention for many lawmakers and outside groups.


Failure is not an option (or is it?): Perhaps the biggest difference is that for the supercommittee, failure was an option. The August debt deal ensured that $1.2 trillion in deficit savings would be achieved through an across-the-board cut in the event that the panel failed.

A failure by the conference committee tasked with crafting a long-term deal, however, would raises payroll taxes and cut off unemployment benefits for millions of Americans – real-world consequences and serious political risk Republicans and Democrats. That leaders of both sides scrambled to reach a short-term deal with the White House this month would suggest some anxiety over the panel’s ability to make it work.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an escape hatch. If it looks like the conference committee is on the verge of failure, leaders could swoop in to work out an eleventh-hour deal.

Members: There were 12 lawmakers on the debt supercommittee – three Senate Democrats, three Senate Republicans, three House Democrats and three House Republicans. This time, the conference committee will have 20 members – four Senate Democrats, three Senate Republicans, five House Democrats and eight House Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has tapped Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Ben Cardin (Md.) and Bob Casey (Pa.).

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has appointed Reps. Kevin Brady (Texas), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), Tom Reed (N.Y.), Dave Camp (Mich.), Renee Ellmers (N.C.), Tom Price (Ga.), Fred Upton (Mich.) and Greg Walden (Ore.).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has named five conferees: Reps. Allyson Schwartz (Pa.), Sandy Levin (Mich.), Xavier Becerra (Calif.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Henry Waxman (Calif.).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has yet to name his three conferees.

Five of those appointed so far -- Baucus, Camp, Upton, Becerra and Van Hollen – are veterans of the debt supercommittee. Notably, three of the eight House GOP conferees tapped by Boehner are freshmen – Hayworth, Reed and Ellmers.

Authority: The debt supercommittee was given broad authority not only in crafting legislation but also in moving it through Congress: Members could have, in theory, worked out a $4 trillion “grand bargain” and then fast-tracked it to the House and Senate floors.

The conference committee will be working strictly within the confines of the payroll tax legislation that has made its way through each chamber.Lawmakers will have a much narrower focus, and Boehner may find his hands tied should his restive House GOP conference stage another revolt against a payroll tax compromise.

Before the the conference committee was passed as part of the payroll tax deal last week, several House GOP lawmakers said that they preferred a conference to a “supercommittee.” Several have noted that a conference committee would follow congressional order, since the panel would be working out differences between the Senate and House bills.

“Oh, my God, if you’re asking the difference between a conference committee and a supercommittee, you must not understand the government,” said Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.).