Fly or crash and burn? Five ways for the debt panel to cross the finish line

There are various possible endings to the supercommittee drama, though the most likely is a partisan, crash-and-burn failure.

The congressional panel on debt reduction is expected to flop, as Republicans refuse to break from Grover Norquist’s tax pledge and Democrats are adamant they won’t cave like President Obama did in prior high-profile negotiations with the GOP.

The chances of a deal hinge on a couple simple factors. Democrats are insistent that Republican leaders violate Norquist’s pledge not to hike taxes while Republicans are pushing for entitlement reforms that the left despises.

Democrats certainly have more leverage than they did during the 2010 tax debate and debt-limit debate this summer. And they sense the upper hand as liberals in Congress are going public with their hope that the super panel fails, which would trigger $1.2 trillion in cuts to defense/homeland security and domestic programs.

Democrats believe they can change the landscape of the 2012 elections with arrows they can fling at the GOP in the coming weeks and months. These weapons include an extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. Both ideas divide the Republican Party and have been discussed being resolved by the supercommittee. Republicans want those issues off the table as soon as possible.

The debt deal, which set up the bipartisan supercommittee, was hailed as a steal by Republicans several months ago. But now, members of both sides are reassessing who got the better of the bipartisan accord.

In July, Democrats forced Republicans to choose whether the automatic trigger in the debt deal would include increased taxes or further cuts to the Pentagon. GOP lawmakers don’t want the military budget to be sliced, but politically, it’s a safer choice than increasing taxes on millionaires — a move favored by Democrats.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been reminded several times during this Congress that his GOP colleagues cannot be forced to follow his lead. Boehner publicly has said he wants a deal, but in many ways, a supercommittee failure and trigger of the $1.2 trillion in across-the-board-cuts is seen as a much smoother path for the Speaker.

The stakes are high for Boehner., a betting market, puts the chances of a supercommittee deal at less than 10 percent. It also has a market on whether Boehner will remain as Speaker through the end of this year.

Boehner is well liked by his GOP Conference and is not as seen as vulnerable to a challenge to his Speakership. However, one false move in this highly charged debate could change the dynamic.

The following are likely endgame scenarios for the supercommittee, which faces a deadline the day before Thanksgiving.

1. Supercommittee members offer competing partisan plans that are voted down. 

If the panel cannot come up with any bipartisan savings, it will spark negative headlines and mockery by the late-night talk-show hosts.

Earlier this month, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a supercommittee member, said a $4 trillion deal was possible. On Friday, he tried to make the case that sequestration would not constitute failure. That spin is telling, along with a prediction last week by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that the supercommittee will fall short.

The law states that supercommittee members must have a Congressional Budget Office score of a plan 48 hours before a final panel vote. Because of the Wednesday deadline, a CBO score must be available late Monday night. But there is a good chance CBO will be producing two scores on separate plans. There is growing chatter that Democrats and Republicans will offer separate plans at next week’s meeting, pointing the fingers at the other side of the aisle and playing 2012 election politics.

Chances: 80 percent.

2. Panel gets small plan, but falls short of $1.2 trillion minimum. 

Several weeks ago, this result was considered probable by many on Capitol Hill and K Street. But Democrats on the supercommittee, including Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), have indicated that this isn’t a viable option. Should such a deal be brokered, the sequestration cuts would be lessened. Yet, Democrats have little incentive to curb Pentagon cuts unless Republicans break with Norquist. 

Chances: 20 percent.

3. Supercommittee strikes a deal cutting $1.2 trillion, avoiding sequestration.

 Mathematically, this scenario is not far-fetched. A potpourri of relatively small cuts to health programs, savings from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, closing a few tax loopholes and assuming anticipated economic growth can easily add up $1.2 trillion. Yet, the politics of this deal done are a lot harder than the math. 

Chances: 10 percent.

4. One of the supercommittee members defects and votes for a plan offered by the other side of the aisle. 

There is a reason why there isn’t a Gang of Six member on the panel. Leaders picked members who are loyal to them, though there has been concern on the left about how far Kerry is willing to go. Likewise, eyebrows on the right have been raised with supercommittee Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who formerly headed the conservative Club for Growth. Democrats on the supercommittee had trouble coalescing behind a proposal earlier this month, though that has since changed. Any defector on the supercommittee would be ostracized and his/her political career would be severely damaged. 

Chances: 1 percent.

5. President Obama jumps in and the supercommittee, overcome by bipartisanship, strikes $3 trillion to $4 trillion deal.

 This isn’t going to happen. Obama’s distance from the negotiations has been a net positive, and Republicans — who are now publicly calling for him to get involved — know it. The GOP believes it can deny Obama a second term, and don’t want to give him something he can tout next year. Democrats on Capitol Hill, many of whom believe Obama is a terrible negotiator, want him to remain on the sidelines. They also want to go back to talking about Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) controversial Medicare reform plan and a grand bargain would hinder that effort.  

Chances: Less than 1 percent.