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Leaders Meet as Clock Ticks

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday demonstrated his most direct involvement to date with bipartisan talks to rein in the nation’s deficit, meeting with all six Democratic super committee members for the first time since negotiations began in August.

With one week remaining for the super committee to find a deal, the hour-and-a-half session in the Majority Leader’s suite marked a shift in Reid’s strategy and reflected the urgency of trying to secure a deal through the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.

Heading into the eleventh hour of talks, both parties are still far apart on the components of a deal, from whether to increase taxes to how to trim entitlements and how to make the parts add up to at least $1.2 trillion in savings.

Reid and Speaker John Boehner met briefly in the Ohio Republican’s office earlier in the day, and Reid said publicly their discussion of the super committee was “nonsubstantive.”

But sources close to the talks — and Reid’s actions later in the afternoon — suggested otherwise. When asked if the leaders’ involvement could help push the group to a deal, super committee member Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, “Well, certainly the more people that are thinking of ways to resolve this the better.”

Until this week, Republican and Democratic leaders had taken divergent approaches with their super committee members. Boehner, along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has met a number of times with the  six GOP members of the deficit panel including Tuesday night. Leadership aides have been a constant presence in staff-level Republican super committee sessions.

Democrats, on the other hand, have taken a looser approach, with leaders conversing with committee members on a more individual basis and with staff getting updates but not necessarily sitting in on every meeting. Democratic sources close to the committee indicated that the lack of regular leadership presence in meetings was not reflective in a disinterest in a deal, but rather the latitude leadership gave its Members to make one — a sentiment echoing remarks House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made to reporters Thursday night.

“My Members don’t have any leash. They’re in there, they’re using their judgment, their knowledge, their understanding. … They know a good thing when they see it — something that’s good for the country and a compromise, and it has to be just that: a compromise,” Pelosi said.

While both parties tried to spin the differences in leadership style up to this point — Republicans accusing Democrats of being disengaged and Democrats accusing Republicans of being beholden to anti-tax activists such as Grover Norquist — how the panel will proceed in the time it has left is still unclear. But sources indicate that Reid and Boehner will have a large hand in shaping the final product, if there is one.

Reid tried to downplay his meeting with Boehner and whether he would support any package the committee might send to the full Congress.

“I don’t think there’s anything to kick up to the leadership level until there’s something that we can take a look at. There’s nothing to look at at this stage. At least as far as I know,” Reid told reporters. “The question [is] if they reach a deal, would I unconditionally support it? No, I have to see what it is.”

Boehner reiterated that he is hopeful for agreement and told reporters that if the super committee produces an agreement, he is confident it will pass Congress.

He also emphasized his support for tax code reform, such as a plan offered by super committee member Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), and he indicated the committee was discussing some job creation proposals.

Taking on taxes has been taboo in the GOP Conference, especially in the House, where a conservative bloc has been reticent to consider anything that might be construed as an increase. Boehner called the Toomey plan “a step in the right direction,” but he noted, “The details of how to get there are yet to be worked out.”

As both leaders appeared to get more involved, super committee negotiations also seem to have shifted into a more collaborative phase. Although Republicans insist they are still waiting for a Democratic counter-offer, sources on both sides acknowledged that the days of exchanging plans ping-pong style are over.

“I think at this stage you have people trying to explore all the different avenues that might be able to bridge the differences. We’ll have to see if we’ll get there, but people are making that effort every day,” Van Hollen said.

Boehner also met Tuesday with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who gave the Speaker rare praise.

“We’re hopeful … the Speaker is working very hard” to resolve this situation, Hoyer said. He noted that Tuesday’s meeting was not his first with the Republican leader. Pelosi and Reid also spoke Tuesday.

All four major conferences caucused Tuesday, but super committee leaders did not go into specifics about the ongoing talks.

Super committee Co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling, for example, updated House Republicans on the status of negotiations in the morning. A number of Members had hoped the Texas Republican  would use the weekly Conference meeting to provide a detailed explanation of where the talks stand and the outstanding issues. But Hensarling stuck to his pattern of giving a vague readout during his 20-
minute presentation, Republicans in the room said, with one explaining he essentially repeated the routine he used this past Sunday on morning news shows.

“He even used the same jokes,” one Republican said.

The question of how leaders might guide the panel to an agreement, however, still looms large — especially given the difficulty they may have selling any plan to their rank and file.

Though leaders generally are still focused on a “big” deal that goes beyond the panel’s $1.2 trillion target, it appeared Tuesday that leaders and super committee members were just trying to come up with something that would prevent automatic cuts to defense, Medicare and domestic programs from taking effect in 2013.

One potential idea has been to find cuts that might be more politically palatable and produce a smaller package that would soften the blow of the “sequester” that would kick in should the super committee fail to find any agreement.

“No. 1, I’m not sure that a big deal is out of reach.  [But] No. 2, the idea would be to come up with a package that was, of course, preferable, to the sequester. Measured against the sequester, there are lots of better outcomes,” Van Hollen said. “The key is to be able to come together and find that formula, whatever sort of magic formula we can get that gets people together on that point.”

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