By Alexander Bolton and Russell Berman - 11/01/11 09:00 AM EDT
Three weeks out with no deal in sight, the risk of failure is mounting for members of the congressional supercommittee on deficit reduction.
While President Obama, House and Senate leaders and politically vulnerable members would suffer the most politically if the supercommittee flops, the dozen members of the panel could also feel the brunt of voter frustration.
Washington’s political establishment has looked to the panel’s Nov. 23 deadline as a pivotal moment in the national debate over federal deficits. It is the culmination of the year’s battles in Congress, which almost resulted in a government shutdown in April and a national default in August.
To fall short of the $1.2 trillion minimum goal necessary to avoid automatic cuts would come as an overwhelming letdown that would likely roil the stock market as well as the political landscape.
Wall Street analysts warn of the likelihood of another credit downgrade, and pollsters warn of a backlash from independent voters.
“All of them collectively will bear the success or failure,” former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said of the panel’s 12 members. “I suspect there’s a lot pressure on members of this supercommittee.”
Dorgan said finding enough in spending cuts and new revenues to avert the automatic cuts of the sequestration process would mark “a small signal for success.”
The panel’s members are confronting risk on all sides. For Senate freshmen like Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and ambitious House Democrats like Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Xavier Becerra (Calif.), signing onto any agreement could alienate segments of their party’s base and threaten their advancement in leadership.
“There are worse things than no deal,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a House liberal who served on the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission and who has warned against slashing entitlement benefits. “A bad deal is worse than no deal.”
Yet in spite of warnings from liberals and conservatives, voices in the political center insist that no outcome is worse than failure.
“The consequences for failure are very significant,” Dorgan said. “If it’s failure, it exacerbates the feelings people have about the country and Congress not being able to right the ship.”
Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said, “I’m sure they’re all trying their hardest, but the risks to the country are pretty significant if they don’t produce something. … It will be seen as a sign we can’t get anything done.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has acknowledged the pressure on the members of the supercommittee. During a press conference last week, he said the panel’s assignment was “as big a task as I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in September said, “Failure is not an option.”
CNN aired a graphic last week suggesting the panel’s members would be viewed as eunuchs — the castrated servants of royalty — if they could not produce an accord.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) said this summer that lawmakers who aren’t willing to compromise should not serve in Congress.
“If you can’t compromise on anything, go home,” Simpson told NPR. “If you can’t learn to compromise on an issue without compromising yourself, then you shouldn’t be a legislator.”
Democrats and Republicans are already exchanging blame in anticipation that the talks will result in deadlock.
Republicans rejected a Democratic offer last week to reduce the deficit by $3 trillion through a combination of spending cuts and $1.3 trillion in tax increases.
David Walker, the former head of the Government Accountability Office, who has long campaigned for fiscal reform and is considering a run for Senate in Connecticut, said failure would prove a major embarrassment.
“If they can’t come up with $1.2 trillion over 10 years, then Congress is more dysfunctional than the American people think,” said Walker.
“If the supercommittee can’t get one person to cross the aisle to cut $1.2 trillion, there should and will be political fallout,” he said.
Walker said congressional leaders and vulnerable incumbents would take a hit, but so would the members of the panel, who all hold safe seats.
“It would be a negative,” he said. “You can expect that people would try to spin it but the American people are tired of spinning.”
Some political analysts note, however, that the members of the supercommittee are insulated by their solid standing both within their party caucuses and in their home districts and states, which may have contributed to their selection in the first place.
All six House members are either committee leaders or serve in the party leadership. The supercommittee co-chairwoman, Patty Murray (Wash.), heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the senior Senate Republican, Jon Kyl (Ariz.), has already announced his retirement.Others on the supercommittee have secure panel chairmen posts, including Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.).
“Individually, I don’t think you’re going to hurt Kerry in Massachusetts or [Rep.] Jeb Hensarling [R] in Texas,” said Paul Begala, who served as a political adviser to former President Clinton. “It’s more systematic. The approval rating of Congress is now in single digits; could it become negative?”
Hensarling, an ambitious lawmaker serving his fifth term, is walking a bit of a tightrope. The supercommittee co-chairman and fourth-ranking House Republican could attract criticism from the right if he strikes a deal with Democrats, but will also take a lot of heat if the panel falls short.
Some note that the public doesn’t have a lot of confidence in the supercommittee.
“The thing about low expectations is that people don’t get too disappointed when you don’t do them,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of political science at Princeton University.
“It could be damaging, but I’m not sure it would be catastrophic. We’ve seen committees fail before, and it doesn’t seem to have a huge effect on the leaders.”
One member in particular who is very eager to get a deal, aides say, is Kerry, whose biggest legislative accomplishment is last year’s ratification of the New START nuclear arms treaty.
Tad Devine, a Democrat who worked on Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, said his former boss doesn’t care about his image.
“He’s reached a point that he’s not really concerned about his reputation as trying to get things done,” Devine said. “I don’t think he’s thinking of this as a steppingstone achievement. It’s an opportunity. If you have some courage, you can get a lot done.”