Supercommittee gives Reid buyer’s remorse

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other Democrats are experiencing some buyer’s remorse about creating the bipartisan supercommittee that is tasked with reducing the nation’s debt level.

The dim view of the panel held by Democrats reflects their reservations about cutting hundreds of billions of dollars in spending at a time when many on the left think the government should open its wallet to create jobs. 

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Reid on Wednesday said he spent the first part of the August recess calling Democratic colleagues to hear their opinions about the supercommittee. He said the conversations were sufficiently negative that he began to have second thoughts about proposing the supercommittee earlier this summer.

“I was making scores of phone calls, talking to senators, Democratic senators, about this supercommittee,” Reid said. “So [after] the first week or so of that, I was not sure it was a good idea to do the supercommittee, but I’ve done it.”

But Reid quickly added that he felt reassured after selecting Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to sit on the panel.  

Other Democratic lawmakers are not optimistic that the bipartisan supercommittee will reach a deal.

“Optimistic? I’m realistic, it’s a hard battle,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who learned first-hand the difficulty negotiating a deficit-reduction package while serving on President Obama’s fiscal commission and on the Senate’s Gang of Six. “They’ve got to sit down and meet and see if they can conjure the same spirit we did for the Gang of Six.”

Lawmakers say a major deal would likely have to include major discretionary spending cuts, Medicare cuts and tax increases — menu choices certain to anger Democratic and Republican constituencies.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said he doesn’t expect “much.” 

“I don’t think they’re going to be able to do anything of any note,” he said.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who voted against the debt-limit deal, criticized the decision to set up the supercommittee and indicated he is skeptical that a bipartisan agreement would be struck.

Republicans, however, are bullish that the 12-member panel will reach a major agreement. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that he believes that the committee will not deadlock. If it does, triggers put into the recent debt-limit deal would automatically cut spending in various areas, including Defense and Homeland Security.

McConnell on Wednesday said: “Failure is not an option. The committee is structured to succeed. We have put very serious people on there who are interested in getting an outcome for the country. And we fully anticipate they will meet their goals.”

McConnell reportedly even told Reid in a private conversation that he was disappointed Democratic leaders were not more optimistic about a bipartisan breakthrough. 

“As Sen. McConnell said to me today — he was a little disappointed, he told me — on my comments. He said, ‘I saw your comments about the supercommittee and you said there was a 50-50 chance,’ ” Reid said, recounting the exchange.

“I said, ‘No, I said better than 50-50 chance.’ He said, ‘No, that’s not good enough.’ ”

McConnell and other GOP lawmakers have even held out hope of the group surpassing its mandate and cutting the debt by $2 trillion or even $3 trillion. 

“Their goal should be $3 trillion,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “I think this is a tremendous opportunity to do things that might not otherwise get done.”

Corker, who does not sit on the supercommittee, said he hopes the panel will also agree on significant reforms to the tax code, although Republicans remain split over whether savings from tax reform should be used to pay down the deficit. 

“I’m very hopeful this will be highly productive,” he said.  

The supercommittee will hold its first organizational meeting, which is open to the public, at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in the Rayburn House Office Building. It will also meet next week, hearing testimony from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf.

Democratic and Republican members of the supercommittee met separately for much of Wednesday to map out tactics before the panel’s first bipartisan session. McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) met with the six GOP members of the supercommittee for about 30 minutes Wednesday afternoon.

McConnell stressed that he is not giving the panel members any marching orders. 

“I’m not going to prejudge what the joint committee might do,” McConnell said. “It has a broad array of options. But its goal, obviously, is to do something significant about deficit reduction with a floor of between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

“I don’t have any particular instructions that I would give to them — or if I did, I sure wouldn’t announce it here today,” he said. 

Reid also promised to give the panel latitude to reach an agreement.

“I am not going to micromanage what Sen. Murray, Sen. Kerry, and Sen. Baucus are doing. I’m not going to do that,” Reid said. 

Russell Berman contributed.