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Debt supercommittee: Are congressional leaders, Obama distancing themselves?

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On the night of July 25, eight days before a critical debt-ceiling deadline, tension reached such a boiling point that President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) held dueling nationally televised addresses to the nation.

“This is no way to run the greatest country on Earth,” Obama warned. Six days later, a deal was reached, ending three months of frantic negotiations that averted a potential default on the government’s more than $14 trillion in debt.

Tuesday night, eight days before another critical deadline, the Capitol’s office lights went dark. At 7 p.m. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) scurried home for the night. Boehner had left the building earlier in the evening.

And Obama was literally halfway around the world, in Australia.

If the “supercommittee” tasked with crafting $1.2 trillion in savings by next Wednesday fails to deliver, Tuesday could be remembered as the day that Washington’s leaders washed their hands of the group.

After diving into the supercommittee efforts early Tuesday, congressional leaders backed away later in the day as both sides remained deadlocked over how to increase tax revenue and how deeply to cut into entitlement programs.

“I don’t think there’s anything to kick up to the leadership level until there’s something that we can take a look at,” Reid told reporters, deferring any negotiating to the six Democrats on the deficit reduction committee. “I cannot negotiate.”

Left behind were a bipartisan group of 12 rank-and-file lawmakers fending largely for themselves with just a few days left to avoid a failure that would set in motion $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that all sides agree would be overly punitive.

Members of the debt-reduction panel, and their staffs, talked late Tuesday and reassembled in separate partisan huddles Wednesday morning, but no deal was at hand. “Nothing really to relay right now,” Rep. David Camp (R-Mich.) said at lunchtime Wednesday, exiting the meeting of six Republicans on the panel.

“We had an offer, they had an offer and there have been ongoing negotiations to bridge the differences,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, departing a two-hour meeting of Democrats on the panel.

By mid-afternoon Wednesday the six Republicans resumed their huddle in the offices of Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), the No. 4 House GOP leader who serves as the co-chairman of the deficit panel. Hensarling has not expanded on his remarks Tuesday night, which seemed to slam the door on any further negotiating from his side’s latest offer of including up to $650 billion in new revenue in a two-step process.

“We have gone as far as we feel we can go,” Hensarling said Tuesday evening on CNBC.

As the day wore on, it remained unclear if that GOP offer remained on the table or if Republicans had pulled it back. They continued to complain that Democrats were not unified in how deeply they were willing to cut into popular, but costly, entitlement programs.

There were no plans to gather all 12 lawmakers together behind closed doors in one room. That hasn’t happened in three weeks, as the group has discovered that little progress is made when the dozen lawmakers work together.

Instead, they have tried to hold small rump groups dealing with different issues, then reconvene in separate partisan huddles to update one another, only to realize the previous offer would not go far enough.

Ever since the panel was created as part of the August debt ceiling compromise, the conventional wisdom has been that gridlock would be the worst outcome — proving once again that Congress could not function, even in a special committee given unprecedented powers to fast-track its proposal without any potential for amendments or a filibuster.

Yet through their work the past 10 weeks, the supercommittee members have privately acknowledged that there is a worse outcome that would rattle financial markets and shake confidence in Washington even more: approval of a debt-reduction plan in the special committee, then having it rejected by the full House or Senate before the Dec. 23 deadline.

This is where the support of Boehner, Reid, McConnell and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is so crucial. For the past 3 1 / 2 years, congressional crises, ranging from the Wall Street bailout to Obama’s health-care legislation and last summer’s debt ceiling talks, all have had a similar rhythm.

Those leaders, or designees given their proxy, have assembled for hours-long talks in a daily fashion. Sometimes those talks were held in the speaker’s conference room overlooking the West Front of the Capitol; other times they were held in a West Wing office. By late evening, the talks would break apart as Obama or congressional leaders made brief remarks calling for cooler heads to prevail, then their staffs would talk deep into the night.

In each case, it assured that once the final product was hatched, each side had a level of buy-in that gave virtual assurance the legislation would win approval (though it took two votes in the House in 2008 to approve the financial bailout).

However, with the supercommittee, Obama and his aides have steered almost completely clear of the group, fearful of a political quagmire resembling the summer’s debt ceiling talks. The president sent a letter in September with some advised cuts, then made a phone call Friday to Hensarling and Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the Democratic co-chairman, on his way to the meeting of Pacific nation leaders.

Congressional leaders have monitored the ongoing talks since early September, and each has held meetings with his party’s appointees to the panel. And senior aides to Boehner and Reid have been particularly active behind the scenes.

Yet the leaders themselves have, to date, shown little interest in putting their own prestige on the line with this group. Reid and Boehner have met about the group’s work just once, for 15 minutes on Tuesday, after which Reid said he would leave the negotiating up to his appointees.

By Wednesday, some members of the committee were looking for help anywhere they could get it.

“Everybody has a role to play and can contribute,” Van Hollen said.

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