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What's At Stake, For The Supercommitee And Us


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

In just three days, the deadline arrives for the group of lawmakers known on Capitol Hill as the supercommittee to turn in a deficit cutting plan Congress can agree on. At stake, $1.2 trillion. That's the amount in spending cuts that will kick in across the board in 2013, cuts that will hit both civilian and military programs; that is, if Congress doesn't take action.

According to the deal, struck earlier this year during the debt ceiling debate, lawmakers must take an up or down vote on the plan. But first, someone in the supercommittee group of six Democrats and six Republicans will have to cross party lines, so they can present something with bipartisan support.

To give us a better sense of what is at stake politically, is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson and congressional reporter Tamara Keith. Ladies, good morning.



CORNISH: So, first, Tamara, after 10 weeks of negotiations, how close is the committee to a deal? Last we heard they were at an impasse in part over the mix of taxes in the proposal.

KEITH: It appears as though they're still at an impasse. As far as anyone can tell, not much happened in supercommittee negotiations yesterday. And while the deadline for the supercommittee to vote on a deal is Wednesday, the practical reality is that they need to have a deal by tomorrow night. That's because the Congressional Budget Office needs 48 hours to score anything they come up with, to figure out if it really cuts what they say it cuts, or raises what they think it raises.

And at this moment, it doesn't look like they have settled on a Plan A, some sort of big $1.2 trillion deficit trim. And it doesn't even really look they've settled on a Plan B, which would be something that comes up short but would let them avoid some of the cuts down the line.

So it's not looking pretty. And it actually, at this point, it looks like they're beginning to position themselves to blame the other guys for failure.

CORNISH: Mara, I know you're feeling under the weather. But can you talk to us a little bit about what is at stake, particularly for Republicans because this discussion about taxes seems pretty significant.

LIASSON: Oh, I think it's very significant. A line has been crossed. You know, up until now, Democrats had accepted the bargain part of the grand bargain; that entitlements would have to be cut or restructured and revenues would have to be raised. They were willing to do entitlements if Republicans did revenues. And Republicans weren't willing to talk about any tax hikes, but now they are.

They're not talking about very much. They want to make Bush tax cuts for the top earners permanent, but they're talking about raising revenues. And you can tell that's significant because conservative Republicans are already rebelling against that.

So, I would say glacially, slowly, both parties are moving to the deal that will have to be made at some point. We're no longer talking whether entitlements will be cut and taxes will be raised. We're talking about by how much.

CORNISH: So, Mara, what's at stake politically for each party here?

LIASSON: Well, instantly there's going to be skepticism that the trigger will ever happen. Already, there's talk about legislation that would roll it back. the sequestration, the automatic cuts will never happen. I think what will happen is that the public will perceive that Congress has failed again; Washington is dysfunctional.

I think that's bad for Republicans because they're in the majority. But it's a pox on both Houses and this tars all incumbents. For the president, he has not been involved in these negotiations. He has said he doesn't want Congress to wriggle out of the trigger. He wants the sequester to happen. He stands ready to help them.

But he's out there campaigning on his own with this We Can't Wait theme. In other words, he's doing executive orders on his own, saying Congress is stuck, Congress can't do anything, I'm going to act on my own.

CORNISH: Tamara, let's say the supercommittee does not meet the deadline and the government is put on the path to automatic cuts, or sequestration. How would it actually work? And could Congress actually do anything to stop it?

KEITH: Congress writes its own rules. So, yes. It could do something to stop it and the reality is it won't go into effect until 2013. That's a very long time for some sort of deal to be worked out. And the other thing is that the Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire at the same time that those cuts are set to take place.

Well, Republicans definitely don't want those tax cuts to expire. And the reality is a lot of Democrats don't want all of those tax cuts to expire. So, you know, it's entirely possible that a year from now we'll be under the exact same pressure. Congress and the president will have to come up with some sort of grand bargain, involving taxes and spending cuts and the deficit.

But the difference is that this election that everyone is utterly focused and that is in some way defining the entire debate, it will have happened already.

CORNISH: So, Mara, what does that mean political? Essentially, is this question of cutting deficit being passed on to voters?

LIASSON: Yes, that's what elections are for. You know, the Bowle-Simpson commission couldn't do this. The Cantor-Biden talks couldn't do this. The Obama-Boehner couldn't do this. The supercommittee couldn't do this.

You know, I went back and looked at the stories we al were writing at the very beginning of this process, where we asked the question: Can Congress and the president solve the deficit problem this year. And the consensus was no. These are questions are too big. Questions about taxes and entitlements will have to be dealt with in an election, and I think they will. And what it means is that the shape of the grand bargain will be determined by who's in the White House in 2013.

CORNISH: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson and congressional reporter Tamara Keith, thank you both. And, Mara, get well.

LIASSON: Thank you.

KEITH: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.