Piling on the Supercommittee

Gone are the days when Congress's deficit panel could work quietly. Now it must confront the demands of Obama and Boehner.

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The deficit "supercommittee" has a tough job. In the last week, it's gotten even tougher.

Created under the same bill that raised the national debt ceiling on Aug. 2, Congress's relatively new 12-member panel will have to find $1.5 trillion in 10-year deficit reduction, otherwise $1.2 trillion in spending cuts will automatically occur. It's a daunting task that will likely involve reforms to popular entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

When the supercommittee met for the first time a week and a half ago, signs were promising. Both Republicans and Democrats, senators and representatives, all the lawmakers on the panel offered conciliatory sentiments in their opening statements.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) suggested the panel should go above and beyond the recommended $1.5 trillion. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), maybe the most fiscally conservative member of the committee, suggested closing corporate tax loopholes. Both sides accepted that entitlement reforms would probably have to happen.

Everyone seemed to be getting along. The deferral of tough decisions at the conclusion of the debt-limit stalemate -- the removal of this whole discussion from the public stages of President Obama's and House Speaker John Boehner's ever-dueling press conferences -- seemed to have worked.

Washington's partisan players might just avoid any further blow-up controversy, it seemed. The supercommittee appeared ready to quietly make tough compromises to meet its mandate; the loud politics of deficit and taxes, it appeared, would be muffled by the stuffiness of the Capitol.

By now, that quiet dream has faded. Higher entities have piled demands on the committee, making a low-key compromise impossible.

Just a few hours after the supercommittee's first meeting, President Obama appeared before Congress to introduce his new $447 billion jobs bill -- and asked the supercommittee to find the extra savings to pay for it.

"The agreement we passed in July will cut government spending by about $1 trillion over the next 10 years. It also charges this Congress to come up with an additional $1.5 trillion in savings by Christmas. Tonight, I am asking you to increase that amount so that it covers the full cost of the American Jobs Act," Obama said, also promising to offer his own jobs-bill offsets.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), the supercommittee's Republican co-chair, responded with displeasure in a press release: "By asking the Joint Select Committee to increase the $1.5 trillion target to cover the full cost of his plan, the president is essentially tasking a committee designed to reduce the deficit to pay for yet another round of stimulus."

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner said the panel should include no tax increases in its final proposal. "When it comes to producing savings to reach its $1.5 trillion deficit reduction target, the Joint Select Committee has only one option: spending cuts and entitlement reform," he said in a speech to the Economic Club of Washington.

After those remarks, it appeared far less likely that the panel's House Republican appointees, two of counted as possible swing votes, would accept Democratic requests for tax increases as part of any "grand bargain" reminiscent of the debt-limit deal that fell apart in late July.

A day earlier, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who does not sit on the supercommittee, asked the panel's members to have the Congressional Budget Office score each deficit proposal for its potential jobs impact. The AFL-CIO supports his request, which could slow down the panel's work.

And on Monday, President Obama laid out his deficit-reduction plan, asking the supercommittee to pass $1.5 trillion in tax hikes -- a plan that includes limiting deductions on incomes over $250,000, ending tax preferences for corporate jet owners, and closing corporate loopholes.

"Either we ask the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share in taxes, or we're going to have to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare. We can't afford to do both," Obama said. Republicans immediately criticized his plan.

The supercommittee was born out of Washington's inability to solve a partisan dispute over spending and revenue. At the time, it seemed a bit pathetic: Instead of making a decision, Obama and Congress imposed a deadline and a repercussion on a group of their colleagues. But this idea was also beautiful, in that it cooled the debate and buried it in Congress, where budget experts and their aides -- all better versed in these matters than Obama and Boehner -- could work out a consensus away from the heat of TV cameras.

Now, the supercommittee's work has become far more political than it was a week and a half ago, as Obama and Boehner have retaken ownership of the issue, thrusting it back into the national spotlight, each making large-scale political calculations that will affect the futures of their respective parties and the outcome of the 2012 presidential race.

Gone are the days when Congress's supercommittee offered a behind-the-scenes opportunity. Now, it's a stage on which larger dramas will play out.

Image credit: Mark Theiler/Reuters