Image: Joe Manchin, Steny Hoyer, Mark Warner,
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., center, flanked by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Md., left, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011.
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updated 11/16/2011 3:28:43 PM ET 2011-11-16T20:28:43

A Democrat on a special deficit-cutting "supercommittee" Wednesday questioned whether Republicans are still interested in negotiating after the panel's top GOP member said Republicans have "gone as far as we feel we can go" on tax hikes.

A sense of deep pessimism has gripped the supercommittee, and judging from the limited public statement by panel members, a debt bargain could be out of reach.

"We need to find out whether our Republican colleagues want to continue to negotiate or whether they've drawn a hard line in the sand," said supercommittee Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. "The question is whether they've kind of said 'take it or leave it.' "

Van Hollen made his comments after co-chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, told CNBC Tuesday evening that the bipartisan debt supercommittee is "somewhat stymied for the moment" because panel Democrats are insisting on tax increases of up to $1 trillion in exchange for cost curbs on rapidly spiraling benefit programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

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Hensarling clarified those comments Wednesday afternoon, telling reporters that the GOP offer on taxes wasn't final and could change once Democrats offered serious cost curbs to Medicare and Medicaid, which are major drivers of the nation's long-term debt woes.

"I'm waiting for the Democrats to put fundamental reform on the table," Hensarling said.

While the supercommittee struggles, a bipartisan gaggle of lawmakers urged the panel to "go big" and far exceed the minimum $1.2 trillion deficit target set for the panel this summer when it was established by a hard-fought budget and debt limit pact between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Failure would trigger across-the-board spending cuts that especially alarm defense hawks.

"This group can do it. And they need to know, if they are bold, if they are brave, if they go big, we will stand with them, and the American people will stand with them," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

The deficit for the just-completed budget year was $1.3 trillion, requiring the government to borrow 36 cents for every dollar it spends.

Under current policies, the government could run deficits near the $1 trillion range through the end of the decade. Even a successful negotiation that produces $1.2 trillion in cuts will still leave a deficit crisis that requires painful choices by policymakers on taxes and benefits programs, budget experts agree.

Backbiting has intensified since an exchange of offers. The Democrats' most recent plan called for $2.3 trillion in deficit cuts, including a $1 trillion tax increase over the coming decade. Republicans countered with almost $300 billion in new tax revenues as part of a $1.5 trillion debt plan, an offer that even a top Democrat, Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, called a breakthrough.

Video: Will a super committee deal remain elusive? (on this page)

"The Democrats won't put a plan on the table to solve the problem, and anything they do that even remotely addresses health care, even superficially, they're insisting on" a $1 trillion tax increase, Hensarling said. "It's not going to happen."

Democrats have signaled privately that they're willing to lower their demands on tax increases somewhat — perhaps to $800 billion over a decade — but there's no sign that Republicans could accept that bargain.

Boehner publicly blessed the GOP offer on taxes Tuesday, bucking opposition by some GOP presidential hopefuls and colleagues wary of violating a longstanding point of party orthodoxy. But there's restiveness on his conservative flank

The supercommittee has until a week from Wednesday to vote on any compromise, but several officials said that in reality, perhaps as little as 48 or 72 hours are available to the six Republicans and six Democrats.

While Boehner's voice is important, his endorsement does not mean all Republicans will follow him or that a deal is in sight. Republicans have been unified for two decades in opposition to higher taxes, while Democrats on the supercommittee insist on additional revenue before they will agree to cuts in benefit programs as part of a compromise.

Boehner said the plan, outlined a week ago to Democrats on the committee, was "a fair offer." Adding an overhaul of the federal tax code would generate economic growth, he said.

But Boehner's chief lieutenant, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. — who pulled out of talks led by Vice President Joe Biden this summer over Democrats' tax demands — has declined to endorse the GOP's $300 billion offer on taxes, even though it's been endorsed by conservative stalwarts like Hensarling and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.

Video: Super Committee Countdown (on this page)

The full committee hasn't met in several days, but various subgroups have been in near constant contact.

More than deficit reduction is at stake, one year into an era of divided government.

Democrats are hoping to add elements of President Barack Obama's jobs legislation to any deficit-cutting deal, including extensions of a Social Security payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits that are due to expire at the end of the year. But their proposal to use savings from shrinking war spending is opposed by some Republicans.

A comprehensive rewrite of farm programs may hang in the balance, too, and lawmakers also must pass legislation to ensure sufficient funds to reimburse doctors who treat Medicare patients.

The twin issues of taxes and benefit programs have long been stumbling blocks in budget negotiations.

In negotiations last summer, according to numerous officials, Obama and Boehner were considering sizable cuts to benefit programs as well as tax reform that would have raised as much as $800 billion in additional revenue. The talks ultimately failed.

Republican leaders still support the concept of swapping modest tax increases for a tax overhaul. And they say that's a good deal, especially since the Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of next year.

"It's important for us to, in my opinion, reform the tax code," Boehner said. "And we've got the highest business tax rate in the world. We've got a personal tax system that's so complicated it costs Americans about $500 billion a year to comply with the current tax code," he said.

Republican officials say the GOP offer envisions an overhaul that would drop the top tax rate on personal income to 28 percent from the current 35 percent and shave or eliminate some itemized deductions that are commonly used. The top corporate rate would fall also.

Despite Boehner's comments, GOP presidential contenders Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry said they were prepared to oppose a plan along the lines of the one under consideration. Another candidate, Mitt Romney, brushed aside a question on the subject.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Will a super committee deal remain elusive?

  1. Closed captioning of: Will a super committee deal remain elusive?

    >>> one week to go before the super committee has to agree on $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. not a breath of a deal in sight. john boehner and harry reid met for what's described as a gut check. democrats fear the panel will cut cherished social programs while programs want any tax increase off the table. so far the battle lines are drawn and neither side appears to be crossing them.

    >>> drivers of our debt crisis are medicare, medicaid and health care spending, nothing else comes close. but the democrats won't put a plan on the table to solve the problem in anything they do that even remotely addresses health care , even superficially, they're insisting upon a $1 trillion tax increase on the worst economy since the great depression, it's not going to happen.

    >> i'm joined by the chair of the democratic national committee . let's get to it. the stalemate, doesn't seem like it's going to be breaking before this deadline. in your estimation, what needs to happen to reach this deal?

    >> well, thomas, i'm a "glass is half full " kind of person. i believe a committee of willing members that make up the super committee could and should sit down and agree on a proposal that balances responsible spending cuts with asking the wealthiest, most fortunate americans to pay their fair share , many of whom -- most of whom are not paying their fair share now. and ? balance our deficit reduction solution with revenue from the wealthiest, most fortunate americans and responsible spending cuts. if we can get agreements on that, which should be simpler than it seems to be and we get republicans to stop with the "my way or the highway" approach to this problem, we could get there.

    >> when we talk about the fact that this is a powerful 12-member panel, we were willing to join up to be on this super committee, it doesn't mean that they were willing to walk out of this with some type of deal, though.

    >> unfortunately, i heard the co-chair, the republican co-chair of this panel said unequivocally that there isn't going to be one penny of tax increases coming out of the committee. how do you begin a negotiation and a development of a proposal to reach a solution on a problem as significant as deficit reduction by starting with something that says unequivocally, one thing is completely off the table? we have to work together. we have to coming to and compromise. that's what the american people want us to do. we need to reduce our deficit in a way that doesn't pile all the pain on the backs of the middle class and working families through exclusive spending cuts. and absolutely the wealthiest, most fortunate americans can pay more. they have a tax rate that is too low and we need to balance this proposal with revenue and cuts.

    >> i want to see on wednesday if we can rebook you a week from now and make sure that that glass is still half full . and see where we get. i want to switch quickly, though, and talk about your good friend, congresswoman gabi giffords. a lot of us got to catch up with her and her husband when she gave an interview to abc's diane sawyer . ? she also posted a message to her constituents about this new book that she has out that she wants to get back to work. however, in the book that i talk about, her husband, mark kelly , criticizes house speaker john boehner for deciding not to visit giffords. is that criticism justified? he certainly sent well wishes through the air waves. but is that a justifiable criticism that he didn't come see her?

    >> that's a personal comment that was the opinion of mark. that's not for me to comment. that's a very personal thing and obviously mark was quite affected by it, understandably so. but gabi is doing great. i had a chance to fly to houston last week and have dinner with her last monday night. she's doing amazingly well. she's beginning to initiate more speech now. that facebook message you talked about, she did a robo-call to her constituents and spoke that message. and her voice is so strong and she's confident. and she's working so hard. and we're all just really looking forward to continuing to see her progress. i know how much i hope that she can come back and continue to do the job that she loves and that her constituents elected her to do.

    >> in your professional opinion, then, do you think speaker borne should have gone to see gabi giffords, then?

    >> that is not a question that is the subject of my professional opinion.

    >> very good. still glass half full . i like this.

    >> thomas, can i just add on the previous interview for penn state , i actually -- vice president biden when he was a senator and i sponsored legislation called "the protect our children act," which is designed to ? beef up the law enforcement resources that we have, particularly with internet crimes against children and going after child sexual predators . it's really important that we -- that parents get themselves educated about stranger danger, not just on the street because most parents do that very well. they have to make sure that they talk to their children about the appropriateness of the kind of interaction that they have with adults, whether it's in person with someone they know or whether it's online with someone they don't know, but educating children and parents about the kind of interaction that they should have with adults is very, very important. that's what every parent should learn.

    >> i could not agree with you more. congresswoman, great to see you today. we'll try to rebook you for next wednesday.

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