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For Debt Committee, No Final-Hour Deal Apparent

Monday is the last day the congressional supercommittee can reach a deficit-reduction deal and still make its Wednesday deadline. The legislation has to be publicly available for 48 hours before a vote, and the clock is ticking. But instead of announcing an agreement, the committee is widely expected to admit it has failed.

The supercommittee was created with the hope that 12 members of congress, six democrats and six republicans, sitting together in a room could accomplish what so many others could not. The goal was $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over a decade, but it appears that the supercommittee wasn't so super after all.

Its kryptonite: fundamental differences between the two parties over taxes and entitlements, though mostly it was about taxes.

"There is one sticking divide, and that is the issue of what I called shared sacrifice," committee co-chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said on CNN's State of the Union Sunday.

Each side was prepared to offer more if they thought the other side was operating in good faith.

That is, if programs like Medicare and Medicaid are going to be on the table, Democrats on the committee believe the Bush-era tax cuts for the highest income earners should be allowed to expire.

"The wealthiest of Americans — those who earn over a million dollars every year — have to share, too," Murray said. "And that line in the sand, we haven't seen any Republicans willing to cross yet."

Offers Made

About a week and a half ago, the Republican side did offer $300 billion in increased revenue, but only if the Bush-era tax cuts were made permanent, with upper-income tax rates actually going down even further. Democrats weren't willing to accept the rate cut.

Meanwhile, Republicans say Democrats weren't willing to give enough on reforms to entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

"Nothing new came out of this. From the Democratic side, it was the same thing: raise taxes, pass the president's jobs bill, no entitlement reform," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said on NBC's Meet the Press. "On the Republican side, you had the one true breakthrough, and that was this new concept of tax reform, which can generate revenue."

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was also on NBC. He said Democrats offered "huge, hard, tough, horrible" reductions in programs they hold dear.

"We put every single sacred cow on the table," Kerry said. "They know that they could have had many things that a lot of us hate to even talk about publicly."

But in exchange, Democrats wanted tax changes the Republicans weren't willing to give.

A Missed Opportunity

"Each side was prepared to offer more if they thought the other side was operating in good faith," said Alice Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as budget director for President Clinton.

Rivlin has served on two bipartisan commissions that came up with deficit-reduction plans, and she advised the supercommittee. She calls the apparent failure of the committee a disappointment and a missed opportunity.

"Each side distrusted the other. The Democrats were afraid to offer serious entitlement cuts because they thought the Republicans will just take that and not give any revenues," she said. "The Republicans said if we offer serious revenues, the Democrats will just take that and they're not serious about the entitlement cuts."

So members of the supercommittee spent Sunday morning positioning themselves to make the other guy look bad, instead of putting the finishing touches on a grand deficit-reduction deal — and it all came back to taxes.

"It's not about assigning blame, but we are unaware of any Democratic offer that didn't include at least a trillion-dollar tax increase on the American economy," Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling said on Fox News Sunday.

Democrat Patty Murray blamed a Republican anti-tax pledge to the group Americans for Tax Reform.

"As long as we have some Republican lawmakers who feel more enthralled with a pledge they took to a Republican lobbyist than they do to a pledge to the country to solve the problems, then this is going to be hard to do," she said.

Everyone went into this knowing that bridging the partisan divide was going to be hard. It appears, with less than a year until the election, it was just too hard, even for a supercommittee.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.