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Super Committee Throws In the Towel

More than three months of negotiations ended in futility today as the co-chairmen of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction declared in one statement what many in Washington had always assumed: The super committee could not reach agreement.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) released a joint statement minutes after U.S. markets closed. The markets had been anticipating the announcement 24 hours in advance.

“After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline,” the co-chairmen said. “Despite our inability to bridge the committee’s significant difference … we remain hopeful that Congress can build on this committee’s work and can find a way to tackle this issue in a way that works for the American people and our economy.”

The panel tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years failed in its mission, meaning automatic, across-the-board cuts equal to that amount will be triggered in January 2013. Of those cuts, about $500 billion will come from defense spending — cuts Republicans especially have already vowed to roll back.

House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said in a statement that he does “not accept the outcome” of sequestration, even though the super committee failed to produce a package that would replace it. He said he would be introducing a bill to fight the defense sequester, as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have indicated they would do in the Senate.

“Secretary Panetta has said he doesn’t want to be the secretary who hollows out defense. Likewise, I will not be the Armed Services chairman who presides over crippling our military. I will not let these sequestration cuts stand,” McKeon said. “I will be introducing legislation in the coming days to prevent cuts that will do catastrophic damage to our men and women in uniform and our national security. Our military has already contributed nearly half a trillion to deficit reduction. Those who have given us so much have nothing more to give.”

Today was marked by an air of inevitability, as a handful of lawmakers of both parties appeared ready to deliver the super committee’s death knell on multiple Sunday morning talk shows. But as the clock wound down, other members of the super committee seemed compelled to live out the promise that they would work “until the stroke of midnight” to try to find a deal. The efforts were one part hope, two parts damage control for an impasse already being spun as the latest sign of Congressional dysfunction.

Late this morning, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) gathered a handful of Democrats and Republicans in his Senate office for an hours-long discussion of a last-ditch proposal. With dozens of reporters and camera crews outside, the panel’s three Senate Democrats, along with Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) as well as Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), mulled over the Kerry “Hail Mary” plan.

A GOP aide briefed by lawmakers in the meeting said Republicans believed Kerry’s offer to be little more than a “reiteration” of previous Democratic proposals that used “weird gimmick[s]” to meet the target for cuts. The aide also noted that Kerry did not appear to have Democratic consensus behind the plan.

But a Democratic aide familiar with the talks rejected that characterization, arguing that Kerry had the support of his colleagues. Another Democratic source said that “Republicans are simply not budging” on the major issue of taxes.

The squabbles over how to characterize the final bipartisan meeting of a panel already on life support highlighted the fatal flaw in the group’s design: Democrats and Republicans never had a strong incentive to move off their respective positions on taxes and entitlements. With no imminent threat of shutdown or default, Democrats refused another bargain to extend Bush-era tax cuts, and Republicans were free to continue pushing for structural reform in entitlement programs while offering only modest concessions on taxes. The super committee, it seems, was destined to deadlock like every other deficit panel before it, from the Biden group to President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to the Senate “gang of six.”

Meanwhile, at the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney defended Obama’s participation — or lack thereof — in the talks, while also blaming failure on Republican intransigence on taxes. Carney danced around numerous questions today about whether the president should have been more engaged, alternately denying Obama was detached and explaining that, by design, the committee didn’t have a seat at the table for the administration.

Carney also noted that the White House had proposed its own plan in September and that Obama called Hensarling and Murray before beginning his trip to Asia late last week to encourage them to reach agreement.

Moreover, the fallback position of the $1.2 trillion trigger was agreed upon among the president, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in August. So regardless of whether the president was intimately involved in talks throughout the fall, he had a significant hand in the deficit reduction outcome, should it stand.

On that note, Carney emphasized that Congress still has 13 months to reach a balanced deficit reduction deal to replace the sequester, but he warned again that the White House does not support nixing the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts without an alternative that forces the wealthy to pay more.

“Instead of pointing fingers and playing the blame game, Congress should act, fulfill its responsibility,” Carney said. “[Congress] needs to hold itself to account. And also should not then try to undo the consequences of their own failure, the consequences that they themselves passed into law. They should do the right thing and come together.”

How lawmakers can do that, given repeated impasses over taxes and entitlements that have plagued multiple negotiating groups, is another story altogether. Carney said it’s hard to see a solution until Republicans agree to tax millionaires, dismissing out of hand an offer from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that included $250 billion in tax code reform, which he said “provided even additional tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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