- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2011

The congressional deficit-reduction committee appeared on the brink of failure late Sunday, as Democrats and Republicans offered little chance that a deal could be reached in time for a Monday night deadline and spent the day blaming the other party for the impasse.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican and co-chairman of the supercommittee, said that while the dozen-member bipartisan panel doesn’t want to give up hope of reaching a deal, “reality is, to some extent, starting to overtake hope.”

“There were 12 good people who invested a lot in this, trying to find a common ground to achieve the goals of this committee,” the congressman said on “Fox News Sunday.” “So talks have taken place over the weekend; they will continue to take place, but the reality is we need to come to an agreement.”

The secretive deficit panel has negotiated almost exclusively in private since first meeting in early September. No full committee gatherings were scheduled Sunday, with party members instead talking among themselves in a negotiating process that some have characterized as “shuttle diplomacy.”

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the panel’s Democratic co-chairwoman, said Republican insistence on extending the expiring Bush-era tax cuts has been a deal-breaker.

“That line in the sand, we haven’t seen any Republicans willing to cross yet,” Mrs. Murray said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I remain hopeful that someone on the other side will say this is too important to fail.”

But Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, a Republican supercommittee member, said letting the Bush tax cuts expire would harm the overall economy and do little to make a dent in the nation’s $15 trillion debt.

“If you really want to get serious about the deficit, our country has to grow economically,” Mr. Kyl said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We have to put people back to work. That’s what creates wealth that can be taxed.”

The supercommittee - a compromise resulting from summer’s hard-fought deal to raise the debt ceiling - has until Wednesday night to vote on a plan to lower federal budget deficits by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. But, because the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office by law must have an analysis of the proposal ready 48 hours beforehand, the real deadline for a deal is the end of Monday.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican and deficit panel member, said that it will be difficult to reach a deal with so little time left.

“It’s been enormously frustrating for me and for many of my colleagues. As I said, we’ve got 12 good people that worked hard on this,” Mr. Toomey said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“But on the [Democratic] side, there was an insistence that we have a trillion-dollar tax increase. There was an unwillingness to cut any kind of spending at all unless there was a huge tax increase.”

Mr. Kyl said the panel’s only “breakthrough” was a Republican offer crafted by Mr. Toomey that included $250 billion in tax revenue used to lower the debt.

“Our Democratic friends are unable to cut even a dollar in spending without saying it has to be accompanied by tax increases,” he said. “I think that tells you all you need to know about our runaway spending.”

But Democrats have panned the offer because it also would cut the top tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent - a move they complained would let wealthier earners receive large tax cuts while middle-class workers would lose deductions for mortgage interest and state and local taxes.

“You can’t get to a 28 percent [level], which loses you a huge amount of revenue, and wind up with the money that you need to be able to fill the gap,” Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and deficit panel member, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It would be the biggest tax cut since Calvin Coolidge.”

Mr. Kerry also said that Mr. Kyl’s accusation that Democrats haven’t been willing to agree to spending cuts without an equal amount of tax increases was “patently not true.”

“We Democrats put a $4 trillion deal on the table and it included huge, hard, tough, horrible reductions on the sacred cows and things that we have been accused of not being willing to do,” he said.

Mr. Hensarling called the struggling negotiations “a huge missed opportunity,” but said the “good news” is if the supercommittee fails, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts would be triggered in early 2013.

The Texas Republican added he hopes Congress would undo the $600 billion in automatic cuts to the Pentagon, which he said would undermine national security.

Mr. Toomey also said it would be “very important that we change the configuration” of the automatic cuts to protect the Pentagon but that he would want to keep the $1.2 trillion spending cut target.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta sent a letter this month to Congress describing the proposed defense cuts as “devastating.”

Rep. Xavier Becerra, California Democrat and deficit panel member, said altering the automatic cuts - which were written into the legislation that formed the supercommitee - would be wrong because Congress should stick to deficit-reduction decisions it already has made.

“It’s a wimpy way out to say we’re going to change the triggers because ‘I don’t like the result out of the supercommittee,’” Mr. Becerra told “Fox News Sunday.”

“There’s a smarter ways to do it than with triggers. But you start shaving away the responsibility to actually make some of those cuts and savings, then guess what, you’re in a worse hole in a year from now than you are today.”

Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, said that if the supercommittee fails, then Congress should reconsider a $4 trillion deficit-reduction proposal floated last year by a bipartisan committee headed by former Sen. Alan Simpson, Wyoming Republican, and Erskine Bowles, a chief of staff for President Clinton.

“If they can’t get to a deal, then they’re going to have to step aside and, hopefully, there will be enough of us stepping forward to basically reintroduce the Bowles-Simpson plan,” Mr. Manchin said on “Face the Nation.”

“That’s really the one that we think puts our fiscal house in order, puts us back in shape.”

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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