Supercommittee failure gives both parties election-year ammunition

The supercommittee’s deadlock gives leaders in both parties plenty of ammunition for the 2012 campaign. 

For months, Democratic and Republican leaders said they wanted a deal, but in the end they did not push their representatives on the panel hard enough to make it happen.  

The panel’s demise will be debated over the next year amid an intensifying message war on which party should be trusted to tackle the nation’s deficit and fix the ailing economy. 

The supercommittee’s failure plays well into the emerging campaign themes of President Obama and the front-runners for the 2012 presidential nomination, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. 

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Obama has said he relishes the prospect of debating the GOP nominee next year on taxes, confident he can portray his opponent as appeasing millionaires and billionaires. During a press conference at the White House on Monday, Obama bashed Republicans for not listening to the “voices of reason.”

Meanwhile, at a campaign appearance in New Hampshire on Monday, Romney blasted Obama for having “no involvement in the process,” which he called inexcusable. 

“I would have anticipated that the president of the United States would have spend every day, and many nights, working with members of the supercommittee to try to find ways to bridge the gap,” he said.

Gingrich, meanwhile, has been one of the supercommittee’s staunchest critics. 

Former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a one-time member of the House GOP leadership and special adviser to Romney, said the supercommittee’s inaction sets up clear themes for the election. 

“We’ll have a very clear-cut fight. Democrats will argue that Republicans want to slash entitlements, and we’ll talk about them wanting $1.3 trillion in tax increases. It’s [a] pretty stark contrast,” he said. “It’s not clear how that debate goes, because a lot of people want us to raise taxes on the rich thinking it will solve the problem, which it won’t.” 

Senate Republicans say they will use the supercommittee debate to target vulnerable Democrats such as Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.). They will force these vulnerables to defend the Democratic proposal to raise $1.3 trillion in new taxes to reduce the deficit and pay for $450 billion in economic stimulus. 

“Every Senate Democrat facing reelection next year will have to explain to voters why they supported a trillion dollars in new taxes on job creators to pay for even more failed government stimulus spending,” said Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

Democrats will use the supercommittee’s deliberations to bolster their argument that Republicans want to slash programs that help the middle class to protect the rich from paying “their fair share.”

Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the Democrat on the supercommittee seen as most eager to strike a deal, began to flesh out that line of attack last week: “What we’re divided on over here, I think everyone knows about it, you’re all writing about it, is whether or not the wealthiest people in the country are going to get an enormous tax cut or whether or not they’re going to be part of the solution.”

In the coming weeks, Obama and congressional Democrats will push for legislation that would extend the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance — issues that divide the GOP. 

Democratic strategists say they are pleased they will have an unobstructed shot at Republicans on Medicare. Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ message guru, and other strategists believe a campaign against the Medicare reforms outlined in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan offers a path to victory.

If Democrats signed on to a deficit-reduction plan cutting $400 billion or $350 billion from Medicare, it would have muddled their message. Democrats offered those amounts in cuts, but linked them to at least $1 trillion in tax increases, which they knew was a nonstarter for Republicans.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), the GOP co-chairman of the supercommittee, said he and other Republicans pushed for major structural reforms to Medicare, which Democrats rejected. 

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“Republicans put forth a plan that was in our budget. It was rejected by Democrats. We went and then gave them the bipartisan plan, the Rivlin-Domenici Medicare plan, which was principally drafted by the Democrat Alice Rivlin,” Hensarling said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Ryan’s proposed Medicare reform would end the entitlement program as it exists and replace it with a premium support system, which liberal critics call a voucher program. The Rivlin-Domenici plan would let seniors purchase Medicare, but only through a premium support system, which would cap payments at GDP plus 1 percent.

Paul Van de Water, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said many seniors might not be able to afford Medicare under this plan. 

Democrats say this will fit snugly into their 2012 campaign playbook.

“Republicans starting in April voted to end the Medicare guarantee, and they have not moved off that position. You saw Chairman Hensarling repeat that once again [on Sunday]. There should be absolutely no doubt in the minds of Americans and the minds of seniors that Republicans will continue to push that agenda,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

Jim Kessler, co-founder of the Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said that “both parties think no deal is a good deal for them politically.” 

“If you’re a Republican presidential candidate, you do not want a major tax reform bill on the eve of an election you think you can win,” he said. “If you’re a Democrat, you’ve already re-secured the base after going after the Tea Party and the Ryan plan, and you want to keep that message clean.”

Kessler, who is part of the coalition that has lobbied for a significant deficit deal, said many centrists and independents are “dissatisfied.”