With just five weeks until its deadline, a secretive Congressional committee seeking ways to cut the federal deficit is far from a consensus, and party leaders may need to step in if they want to ensure agreement, say people involved in the panel’s work.
The 12-member committee is just over halfway through the 76-day interval from its first meeting to the date its final report is due on Nov. 23, but has not gained much traction. The lawmakers have not agreed on basic elements like a benchmark against which savings will be measured.
The panel’s members, evenly divided between the two parties, spent most of September in a standoff. Republicans refused to budge from their position against new taxes. Democrats said they would not discuss cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare unless Republicans made a firm commitment to accept additional revenues.
The two leaders of the panel, Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas, have told committee members not to talk publicly about their work. But other lawmakers and Congressional aides privy to the panel’s effort have provided a remarkably consistent picture of the deliberations as the committee tries, in a matter of weeks, to find fiscal answers that have eluded Congress and the White House for years.
A Republican who has worked on Capitol Hill for more than two decades said: “Basically we are going in circles. It’s going very, very slowly. The only way this will work is if the leaders decide they want to get a deal and lay down parameters. Everybody is sitting around sucking their thumb until they get some guidance on what to do.”
Some lawmakers expressed similar views.
“My impression is they are not progressing too rapidly,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, which is responsible for Medicare, Medicaid and taxes. “Things are not moving too fast.”
Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, said: “These 12 people are no more autonomous than your left thumb. They need some guidance from the White House and from the leadership of Congress.”
Congressional leaders — including Senators Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, and Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, and Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio — have refrained from offering public advice to the panel, which they helped create.
The committee, with equal numbers of senators and House members, is supposed to write legislation reducing deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Committee members have not decided how to apportion the savings among various categories of spending like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, farm programs and the military and how much should be raised in revenues.
A person working for the committee said members were “still hovering at 30,000 feet,” asking basic questions: “What is the baseline? Are we doing tax reform?”
Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the committee, said “the jury is still out” on whether it could agree on $1.2 trillion in savings.
If the legislation to save that amount is not enacted, the president is supposed to make up the difference by imposing across-the-board cuts in most military and civilian programs in January 2013.
The joint committee is trying to flesh out ideas for deficit reduction developed in May and June during bipartisan talks led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. In the joint committee, as in the Biden group, lawmakers have held lengthy discussions, but when they reach a decision point, it appears that neither side wants to go first.
Several committee members said they were afraid of failure. They know that voters, investors and credit-rating agencies will take the panel’s work as evidence of how well Congress functions.
The circular nature of the discussions, the ethereal talk about “modernizing Medicare” and “reforming the tax code” has frustrated some panel members like Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who has said he is eager to start serious negotiations.
By all accounts, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, has been the most talkative panel member behind closed doors. He has managed to irk members of both parties as he weighs various options.
“Kerry just talks a lot,” said a House Republican aide. “It’s what I would call Senate talk. It’s like a waterfall of words. It never gets you anyplace.”
Another person who has attended the committee’s meetings said: “Kerry is very aspirational. People hope he will come down to earth.”
An aide to Mr. Kerry said the senator knew that “some people are unhappy” with his remarks. “He thinks out loud, running through the options in his mind,” the aide explained. “He vocalizes options that may cause distress. That does not necessarily mean he supports them.”
Several members of the committee, like Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, have pushed for changes in the tax laws that they believe would revive the economy and generate additional revenue.
“Portman is the most gung-ho for tax reform,” said a Republican who has attended many of the committee’s sessions. “He’s the Chihuahua in the room, constantly yapping about it, sometimes to the frustration of other Republican members, who want to focus on deficit reduction through entitlement reform.”
Mr. Portman defended his stance, saying, “Most economists agree that fundamental corporate tax reform is going to produce more economic growth and therefore, as a consequence, more revenues.”
Members of both parties want to simplify taxation of corporations, reducing the rates while eliminating many deductions and credits. But panel members have discovered that it is difficult to separate corporate tax cuts from individual tax issues. A large number of businesses, including partnerships, are not subject to the corporate income tax, but distribute profits to the owners, who report the income on their individual tax returns.
The co-chairmen of the committee say their goal is to come up with a package of savings that will avoid across-the-board cuts.
This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.