With the congressional deficit reduction committee locked in a stalemate as it enters its final 10 days before a critical deadline, members have hinted that they may be willing to punt and consider fallback plans.
The secretive supercommittee already has let slip a soft deadline set by the Congressional Budget Office, which wanted the group's plan at least two weeks in advance in order to properly "score" the document to ensure its numbers add up.
On Sunday, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and panel co-chairman, told CNN's "State of the Union" program, "Indeed, yes, there could be a two-step process that could give us pro-growth tax reform."
Under such a scenario, for example, the deficit panel could instruct tax-writing committees to reform tax codes in order to raise a certain amount of money, but leave it to the tax writers to work out the details.
"It is important to note that the [supercommittee] has both a goal and a duty, and in many respects the duty is more important than the goal," Mr. Hensarling said. "The duty is to put forth legislation that actually addresses our long-term structural debt."
Reforming health care entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, he said, is the only way to significantly lower the deficit.
"Nothing else comes close," he said.
Mr. Hensarling said he is hopeful that the 12-member bipartisan panel can hammer out a deal in time, but the process "has been a roller-coaster ride."
"This isn't easy," he said. "If it was, the president of the United States and the speaker of the House would've gotten it done themselves."
Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican and panel member, said the talks are "at a difficult point" and that "we have no time to waste."
"I stay here [in Washington] this weekend, as most of my [supercommittee] colleagues did, so that we could continue the various discussions that are taking place," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
The panel has until a week from Wednesday to agree on a plan to lower the federal budget deficit by $1.5 trillion. Failure would trigger $1.2 trillion across-the-board spending cuts, about half directed at the Pentagon.
Because the "automatic" spending cuts wouldn't take effect until January 2013 in a process called "sequestration," Congress has plenty of time to change its rules — a scenario Mr. Toomey said is likely should the deficit panel fail.
"In a very, very unfortunate event that we don't [reach a deal], I think it's very likely that Congress would reconsider the configuration of that sequestration," he said. "I think that would be a lively debate."
Mr. Toomey was a chief architect of a Republican plan last week that called for about $1.2 trillion in debt reduction that included about $750 billion in spending cuts and $400 billion to $500 billion in new revenue.
Supercommittee member Rep. James E. Clyburn told "Fox News Sunday" that, while he supports "about two-thirds of what Patrick J. Toomey has put on the table," numbers in the plan might not add up.
"What I'm not for is trying to count something that CBO will not score," the South Carolina Democrat said. "The legislation is very clear. We've got to come up with a plan that CBO will score, not that Pat Toomey will dream about."
Mr. Clyburn said that while he was "very comfortable" about the prospect of a compromise, "I am not as certain as I was 10 days ago."
Sen. Mark R. Warner, a member of another debt-reduction group known as the "Gang of Six," urged the supercommittee to continue its work. But should it fail, the Virginia Democrat said, Congress should consider $4 trillion deficit-reduction proposals already floated by his group and by former Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff for President Clinton.
"We've tried this congressional process. I think we need to let that play itself out," Mr. Warner said on "State of the Union." "But if they're not successful, we think that the Simpson-Bowles approach or the Gang of Six, something that has got the $4 trillion number, ought to get a vote as well."
Because the supercommittee talks have been conducted almost entirely behind closed doors, it's difficult to gauge the process. But the overall tone of lawmakers on the panel in recent days hasn't been optimistic.
Asked Thursday how he would characterize the talks, Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and a panel member, paused and said, "Honestly, I'm not sure. I'm not sure.
"When you get closer to the end, it's harder to be optimistic; but I'm remaining hopeful," he told a gathering of reporters at the Capitol.
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