BACKSTAGE - HOW THE SUPERCOMMITTEE FLUNKED :
The supercommittee last met Nov. 1 - three weeks ago! It was a public hearing featuring a history lesson, "Overview of Previous Debt Proposals," with Alan Simpson, Erskine Bowles, Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin. The last PRIVATE meeting was Oct. 26. You might as well stop reading right there: The 12 members (6 House, 6 Senate; 6 R, 6 D) were never going to strike a bargain, grand or otherwise, if they weren't talking to each other. Yes, we get that real deal-making occurs in small groups. But there never WAS a functioning supercommittee: There was Republican posturing and Democratic posturing, with some side conversations across the aisle.
Playbook was a superoptimist: We thought that human factors would prod ambitious members to crack the code, and that the committee would take on its own ecology, regardless of pressures from above or below. But we were punk'd: The supercommittee - one of the most fascinating government experiments of this generation -- never existed as a dynamic political organism.
The official deadline for action by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. The real deadline is Monday night, since any plan has to be posted for 48 hours before it's voted on. So conversations this weekend revolved around how to shut this turkey down. Aides expect some "Hail Mary" offers on Sunday, and there's something on the stove that could be inoffensive to both sides. But the committee may not even have a fig-leaf agreement to announce. Total, embarrassing failure. The markets and the country will hate it.
The most likely scenario: The co-chairs, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), on Monday will issue a short joint statement with the basic message: "This marriage is over." Other possibilities are to hold a short going-out-of-business hearing, or to vote down a Republican proposal and a Democratic proposal. But one aide says: "Few, if any, one either side, want a final, ugly food fight ... The chairs are working to figure out how to put the appropriate period on the sentence and do so in the most dignified manner possible. ... [Don't expect] a showdown of dueling voters and a ton of fingerpointing."
Both sides recognize that the optics are disastrous. The Dem. aide continued: "They don't feel the need to burn the place down as they turn off the lights."
The concept of the supercommittee, as POLITICO's Jake Sherman articulated in an email: "[I]f you put 12 serious members in a room, no distractions, easy way through the Senate [direct path for bill], they'd be able to get something." BUT THAT NEVER HAPPENED: The 12 members never had specific, hot-box, come-to-Jesus discussions. It was all white noise. Neither side was willing to jump first, and the two didn't have the capacity to jump together.
One Democrat said Murray "had a really great relationship with Hensarling. They had a very productive relationship -- well, I guess, not 'productive' in the sense of producing a deal at the end. ... [Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John] Kerry [D-Mass.] was his diplomatic self: very active in trying to keep the channels of communication open and feeling the sides out."
A senator told us the supercommittee should have gotten serious sooner - made some tough choices on parameters at the beginning, then figured out how to get there. But that implies committee members got serious at the end. Instead, they were sniping about what was an "offer" and what was a "conversation." When one side claimed a breakthrough, the opposition emailed reporters with the subject line: "
The supercommittee even fooled itself. "Both sides at various times, after ad hoc conversations, felt like we were making progress in the evening," recalled a GOP participant, "before coming back in the morning and finding, 'We can't actually do that.'" A Democratic participant: "It became clear on our end that this all came down to [insistence on extending] the Bush tax cuts for Republicans, and that was the immovable object at the end of the day."
Democrats have almost the same beefs, and even express them similarly. A top Dem. aide : "The Democrats on the committee didn't feel like they had a willing partner in negotiations because revenue was never a serious component of discussion. ... [W]e've seen offers, and none of those offers are legitimate or are plans that would require the wealthiest Americans to sacrifice along with everybody else. ... Democrats came into this in the spirit of, 'We can make some hard choices around entitlements. We can make some painful decisions and we can take some guff from the left.' And I think that throughout the process, they did that. If you look at MoveOn and AARP and even the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, we took a lot of hits from the left on the entitlement reforms that we put forward ."
One Democrat said the supercommittee structure "was a kind of diffuse, horizontal ... You had a lot of folks trying to take initiative and be the one to get the deal done."
Republicans usually met in the Cannon House Office Building, where Hensarling has his office as chair of the House Republican Conference. The GOP prepared elaborate plans: not just how much the government could make from auctioning spectrum, but what part would go on the block, and what part would be reserved for public safety. Hensarling repeatedly told the GOP members: "I'm an old Boy Scout. I like to be prepared."
Democrats usually met in S-116, in one of Kerry's Foreign Relations conference rooms. Murray - the Democratic chair, who also chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee - was described by one participant as "the police ... the voice of our base." Another Democrat put it more gently: "She is really influenced by the constituents that she represents. Throughout this process, she had these conversations with people about, 'My Social Security is on the line.' So she really felt a very heavy burden to do something, but to do something in a way that was going to be fair to the people that she's made a career out of representing. She made some really difficult choices, and she felt like she did enough that if Republicans reciprocated, there was an opportunity for a deal. ... She's one of those people who believes that while it certainly seems like Washington is broken, it has to work."
Two supercommittee members - Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) -- never really checked into the conversation, according to numerous participants on both sides. A Democrat explained: "There's a basic threshold for our guys that any deal has to be better than what would happen with no deal. There were some folks who never really saw us get close to [that] threshold."
Through all this, the White House was mostly hands-off. One Democrat said President Obama gave the committee "a lot of autonomy." Another Democrat: "It was kind of the opposite of the debt ceiling. Instead of really haggling, inserting himself into the actual haggling back-and-forth, he intervened kind of surgically to draw clear lines at a couple points that we felt put us in a good negotiating position."
Speaker John Boehner, elliptically in public and explicitly in private, had given Republicans top cover to raise revenues in return for tax reform. "This has always been a question of scale," a top GOP aide explained. "If they were willing to go a little further on entitlements, we'd see what we can do on revenues. That was the way it would have to work. What we found was, they needed a trillion-plus in revenues, and weren't willing to do anywhere near that on entitlements."
Republicans pat themselves on the back for a plan - floated by supercommittee member Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a former president of the Club for Growth - that would, in the GOP euphemism, "lead to additional revenues." As one aide recalled: "We thought we had found the sweet spot: The right was pissed, but not too pissed. The mainstream media was giving us credit for getting out of our comfort zone." At Tuesday's regular meeting of House Republicans, Hensarling gave a detailed description of the plan, and got applause.
But Democrats sensed the Republicans were getting pushback, either from leaders or rank and file. A Dem. aide: "What you saw was over the course of last weekend was members getting somewhat close to a deal. [There were] empty Senate office buildings, empty House buildings, members meeting casually to talk about this. ... Once the House came back into town, the negotiating stance of those House Republicans radically changed. ... At the end of the day, it was clear that there was nothing that they could say 'yes' to."
A Democratic aide had this eulogy for the supercommittee: "The worm has turned a little bit. The national conversation now is about income inequality and about jobs, and it's not really about cutting the size of government anymore or cutting spending. 2010 gave one answer to that question. But 2012 will give another, and we've got to see what it is."