Congressional negotiators made a yet another push Friday to carve $1.2 trillion in savings from the federal debt, but remained stuck in their entrenched positions on tax policy even as the clock was running down on their efforts to reach a deal.
Running from one small huddle to the next, lawmakers on the special deficit committee continued trying to reach a compromise before a Wednesday deadline. After that, the panel loses special legislative advantages that could help its recommendations win congressional approval.
A series of bipartisan meetings late Thursday night and early Friday produced no breakthroughs, and perhaps the best chance in a generation to tame the government’s swelling debt, now at $15 trillion, continued to slip away.
By Friday evening, a sense of gloom enveloped the Capitol, which was nearly completely vacant as members of the House and Senate returned to their states for a week-long Thanksgiving break. Left behind were the dozen members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, Lawmakers and aides said they need a breakthrough by Monday night to leave enough time for getting an official audit of their work from the Congressional Budget Office.
Despite the new negotiating setback, Republicans pledged to continue talking. “If an agreement is not reached today, members of the joint select committee, Democrats and Republicans, will meet through the weekend. We are painfully, painfully aware of the deadline that is staring us in the face,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), the GOP co-chairman of the committee.
As he left the Capitol Friday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) dismissed the latest GOP overture with a smile and a long pause. “I’m going to be available to talk, if they’re willing to put forward something reasonable. If they’re not willing to put forward anything reasonable, there’s no point in talking,” he said.
Democrats rejected an offer from Republicans for a limited deal, which could cut the deficit by half of the $1.2 trillion goal. Such an agreement could soften the blow of automatic spending cuts in defense and domestic programs that take effect in 2013 if the panel does not produce a deal on $1.2 trillion in reductions.
With little progress in efforts to reach the $1.2 trillion target, Republicans on the “supercommittee” worked with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to develop the more limited plan.
Republicans proposed to achieve about $640 billion in savings over the next decade, primarily through cuts to domestic agency budgets, a pay freeze and bigger pension contributions for federal workers, cuts in farm subsidies, an overhaul of the postal service and an array of other spending cuts and revenue raisers. The offer would make no cuts to the Pentagon beyond the pay freeze and attrition of civilian workers and included a tax increase on owners of corporate jets.
Many of the provisions gained bipartisan support during negotiations this summer over the debt limit, but Democrats have refused to accept them without matching tax increases.
“This was a balanced, bipartisan plan – the fact that it was rejected makes it clear that Washington Democrats won’t cut a dime in government spending without job-killing tax hikes,” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman.
But Democratic aides said the proposal would have replaced sharp cuts to defense — a top political priority for Republicans — with cuts that would affect the middle class and slash spending for Democratic priorities.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), exiting an hour-long meeting of the panel’s six Democrats, rejected the Republican offer for not meeting “any standard of common sense” because it would not raise any revenue from the wealthiest Americans.
“We were sent here to do $1.2 trillion or $1.5 trillion or $4 trillion,” Kerry told reporters. “So the idea of Friday, of settling for a half of what the American people need and what we were sent here to do, is unacceptable.”
Taxes remained the central dispute between Democrats and Republicans on the committee. The GOP members rallied behind Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s proposal to raise roughly $300 billion in new taxes, while also leaving in place the Bush-era tax cuts approved in 2001 and 2003.
Democrats were willing to negotiate over the GOP proposal, but they objected to leaving the Bush tax breaks in place for the top 2 percent of income earners. If those breaks for the wealthy expired at the end of next year, it would provide an additional $800 billion in revenue over the next decade.
“To have something on table that does not ask the wealthiest people in the country to share in it would be unconscionable. This is the divide right now. We’re still working. I hope we can get there, but I don’t know at this point,” Kerry said.
Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.