Debt panel is stoking skepticism

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday became the most senior member of either party to cast doubt on the supercommittee’s ability to reach an agreement before the Nov. 23 deadline. 

Choosing his words carefully, the Maryland Democrat said he’s “hopeful” the committee will meet its goals before time runs out. But when asked directly if he has confidence in the panel’s success, Hoyer said he doesn’t.

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“People ask me, ‘Are you optimistic?’ I say, ‘Look, I’m not optimistic, I’m hopeful,’ ” Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol.

“Hopeful,” he clarified, “is not confident.”

Many budget experts and political observers have long been skeptical of the supercommittee’s ability to overcome partisanship and develop a plan that both parties can endorse. 

But Hoyer’s comments represent the first time a congressional leader has openly expressed doubt about whether the panel is up to the task of finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts over the next decade.

When a reporter framed Hoyer’s remarks as revealing an absence of confidence in the panel, the Democratic whip pushed back a bit, though he didn’t alter his message.

“The absence of confidence is not necessarily the lack of confidence,” he said.

A failure by the supercommittee could have repercussions for the entire country.

Major banks increasingly fear the supercommittee is going to crash and burn, potentially triggering another downgrade of U.S. debt. The first downgrade, in August, began a hemorrhaging in the markets, and a second could inflict serious damage on the economic recovery.

Members of the deficit committee met secretly for three hours Tuesday and rejected the notion that the panel hasn’t made enough progress.

“I remain encouraged that the members of the Joint Committee know how serious the situation is. I believe they are all committed to achieving our goal,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), the Republican co-chairman of the supercommittee, told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday.

“Until the stroke of midnight on Nov. 22, we still have plenty of time.”

Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the Democratic co-chairwoman, said Tuesday’s meeting was “constructive,” but in keeping with the panel’s custom, declined to provide details.

“We’re keeping moving,” she told a trail of reporters.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who huddled privately with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) at the end of Tuesday’s gathering, said afterward that the group was actively engaged in negotiations.

“I don’t want to discuss pieces, because it is all very fluid, and I don’t want there to be dribs and drabs out there,” Kerry said. “We are having a lot of hard, complicated discussions.”

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), another panel member, said he was “pretty confident” the group would meet its Nov. 23 deadline. He noted that the group has been sharing information with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation. 

CBO Director Doug Elmendorf, who will testify before the panel on Wednesday, has said he needs a deal by early November to score it by Nov. 23.

Hoyer said it’s “absolutely essential” that the supercommittee succeed. The House Democrats on the panel — Reps. James Clyburn (S.C.), Xavier Becerra (Calif.) and Van Hollen — maintain that all 12 members “are working productively toward an end,” Hoyer added.

“That does not mean that they believe there have been agreements on particular component parts,” Hoyer cautioned. “Time is short [and] that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence.”

Rep. John Larson (Conn.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, also noted “a strong restraint of time” on the supercommittee’s deliberations. 

“We do have a grand opportunity in front of us,” Larson said, “but time is running short.”

The deficit panel has met numerous times in recent weeks — publicly and privately — in an effort to forge a bipartisan budget plan that can pass both the House and Senate this year. 

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But the behind-the-scenes deliberations have been kept remarkably secret, and the panel is nowhere close to an agreement. A failure of the panel to reach a deal would automatically trigger sweeping federal spending cuts, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs.

Hoyer said the covert nature of the panel’s discussions is perfectly understandable, given what’s at stake. Leaks, he suggested, would only undermine the committee’s effectiveness because they’d inevitably trigger a lobbying frenzy on and off Capitol Hill.

“The 12 are being very circumspect with their colleagues as well as the press,” Hoyer said. “A big deal is going to be a controversial deal. … Everybody will not like something.”

Not all congressional leaders are cheering for the supercommittee’s success. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said recently that the panel’s failure might even be preferable because it would lend committee heads like him greater sway over the cuts under the sequestration route.

“We can maneuver those [automatic cuts] around, and quite frankly, that might be the better path to take,” Harkin said last week on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.”

“I don’t have any fear of moving ahead without the supercommittee involvement,” Harkin added. “In fact, in some ways I think we might be better off if we didn’t have something from the supercommittee and moved ahead through the normal legislative process.”

Erik Wasson contributed.