By Alexander Bolton and Russell Berman - 11/18/11 01:18 AM EST
Republicans are calling for President Obama to jump into the deficit-reduction talks gripping Washington, reflecting the widespread view that the congressional supercommittee is now headed for a failure.
Lawmakers and congressional aides familiar with the deliberations say the talks have reached a hard impasse, with Republicans locked in an internal struggle over whether to agree to higher tax hikes to cut a deal.
“We’re in the two-minute drill and closing in on a ‘Hail Mary’ and the quarterback is on the sidelines.
“Unless the leadership, including the president, steps in and saves this thing, I think the consensus is, in terms of coming up with a credible package, all is lost,” Coats added.
There was a surprising lack of urgency on Capitol Hill Thursday as members of the supercommittee talked past one another. Some lawmakers not on the super-panel shrugged at the inaction, saying they were planning to go home for the Thanksgiving recess and noting they don’t have to vote on any deal until next month. Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders indicated they are in no rush to jump in and broker an agreement.
Democrats, who suspect the GOP calls for presidential intervention are more about spinning the post-failure blame game than getting a deal, argue having Obama enter the negotiations at this late date would be unlikely to help matters and could hurt them.
“This is a joint congressional committee. It was set up like that. The president does not have a vote at this table,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a Democratic member of the supercommittee.
He suggested that from the Republican point of view, Obama’s involvement could actually hinder the talks. “I think if the president got involved, we’d be hearing some of our colleagues on the other side saying he was interfering in the process,” Van Hollen said.
The two sides appear far from a deal just days from the supercommittee’s Nov. 23 deadline.
Democratic offers to cut entitlement spending have shrunk as Republicans have given little ground on raising taxes.
The biggest proposal came at the end of October when Democrats suggested cutting Medicare by $400 billion and Medicaid by $75 billion.
An offer floated last week proposed reducing Medicare by $350 billion and Medicaid by $50 billion and dropped a proposal to change the way Social Security cost-of-living-adjustments are calculated. The Democratic offer also pocketed a proposal from Republicans to put $250 billion in new net tax revenues in the package, but only if the GOP dropped its demand to lower tax rates beneath the Bush-era levels.
Republicans say only Obama can break the jam because without his leadership, Democrats will not give any more ground on entitlement reform.
“I think he needs to be involved,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.
“There’s a huge power vacuum right now. And I think the Democrats look to him for leadership, and the fact that he’s not here is basically sending a pretty powerful message that he’s disinterested in getting a result, and I think that’s affecting the discussion. No question about it.”
A Republican member of the supercommittee, Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), bemoaned Obama’s absence from the talks.
“I think it would have been helpful all along the process. He’s not been involved,” Camp told The Hill.
But when asked if Obama’s involvement was essential to striking a deal, Camp paused for several seconds and declined comment.
A White House spokeswoman said reaching a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction deal is Congress’s job, as mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in August.
“The president was engaged in daily discussions throughout the summer on how to reduce the deficit in a balanced way and in September he put forward a very detailed set of recommendations to the Joint Select Committee to achieve significant deficit reduction,” spokeswoman Amy Brundage said.
“Avoiding accountability and kicking the can down the road is how Washington got into this deficit problem in the first place, so Congress needs to do its job here and make the kind of tough choices to live within its means that American families make every day,” she said.
Republicans arguing for the president to dig in point specifically to the triggered Pentagon cuts if the committee fails, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with senior GOP lawmakers, has warned would damage the military.
“Given the fact that President Obama was responsible for making sure the sequestration included defense cuts … that his own Defense secretary says are irresponsible and will hollow out the armed forces, he absolutely has a responsibility to prevent that from happening,” a House GOP leadership aide said.
“I assume the telephone works in Bali,” the aide added, referring to the president’s travel itinerary.
A House Republican leadership aide said the president’s only move in recent days was to call the GOP co-chairman of the supercommittee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), on Friday “while he was on his way to a basketball game.”
Hensarling on Wednesday publicly urged the president to weigh in and clarify or rescind a veto threat he issued in September, when he said he would not sign a deal that overhauled entitlement programs but did not ask the wealthy to pay more in taxes.
“That is something that could be very helpful for the president to do to these negotiations,” Hensarling said.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), a Democrat on the committee, said the president has already made his views clear.
“I think we all know what’s on the table. The president put his proposal on the table; I don’t know what more he needs to tell us,” Becerra said.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Obama needs to intervene to make the supercommittee work and defuse the defense sequester.
“I would think that would be a good thing,” he said. “It’s called leadership.”
Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), a Republican member of the supercommittee, declined to predict the panel’s chances of success but said “it might be useful if he was there,” referring to Obama.
Erik Wasson contributed to this story.