The bipartisan supercommittee's proposal for addressing the nation's debt woes is due two weeks from Wednesday, but the panel already has hit a deadline that Congress' official scorekeeper says should be met to ensure the numbers add up.
And while 12 committee members say they are working to meet all their deadlines, they have shown little evidence they will submit a plan anytime soon to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office for analysis.
"We're at a critical time now," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat and a supercommittee member, told MSNBC last week. "We've got until Nov. 23, but everybody knows the real deadline is earlier, because the Congressional Budget Office needs time to analyze" the plan.
The committee has until Nov. 23 to submit detailed legislation that would identify ways to lower the debt by $1.5 trillion. But CBO Director Douglas W. Elmendorf publicly told the panel at least twice since September that he needs the document by early this month in order to meet the legal requirement to "score" the plan to ensure its budget projections are on the mark.
Yet the secretive bipartisan panel — which hasn't meet collectively since Oct. 26 and has been extremely tight-lipped — appears resigned to let CBO's soft deadline slip.
"CBO always says they need more time and always gets the job done eventually," said a congressional aide close to the committee. "If need be, members can build in a bridge to get a measure drafted and scored.
"No one is rooting for this to run up to the deadline, but given past debates, it sounds like we may have to prepare for that eventuality."
Several former CBO directors say that without knowing what's in the plan, it's difficult to predict exactly how much time the agency would need to analyze it. But they agree time is running out.
"I've been operating under the assumption that the 23rd is a real deadline, one that matters to [CBO], and for them to hit the 23rd with a CBO score, they have to get things done soon," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as CBO director from 2003 to 2005.
"I'm not talking the 20th, I'm not talking the 16th, I'm think I'm talking the 9th" of November.
But the debt panel could buy itself some time, Mr. Holtz-Eakin and others say, if it sends CBO pieces of what it is working on before the final proposal is due, a common legislative practice.
"I would be stunned if [supercommittee members and staff] weren't talking to CBO staff all the way through this process," said Donald B. Marron Jr., who served as acting CBO director in 2006.
Another congressional aide familiar with the panel said members have sent CBO some ideas to consider.
Meanwhile, Mr. Elmendorf has said the agency already had given the panel a "tremendous amount" of preliminary analysis.
"What we are doing right now very, very intensively is giving supercommittee members and staff estimates of the budgetary effects of different proposals that they are considering," he told the Council of Foreign Relations in New York last month.
Yet even with early hints, CBO likely would need the full proposal in advance of Nov. 23, former CBO directors say.
"Even with some advanced warning, you're talking about a big job, and CBO staff, I think, will be working around the clock to do it in two or three weeks if it's a complicated package," said Rudolph G. Penner, who directed the CBO from 1983 to 1987.
Even if CBO has pieces of the draft ahead of time, the supercommittee may rewrite the proposal at the last minute, rendering CBO's preliminary scores largely useless.
"At the end of the day, what CBO has to score is what actually is written down in legislative language, which may end up looking different," Mr. Marron said. "The real risk from a scoring/timing point of view is the members come up with something on the fly."
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