Little Progess In Supercommittee As Deadline Nears

The congressional supercommittee that must find at least $1.2 trillion in cuts in just three weeks held another public hearing Tuesday, this time on earlier proposals to cut the deficit. A political impasse over taxes is holding up a deal, and Tuesday's testimony had little apparent effect on the panel.

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The deadline is nearly here to decide on a deal that would cut more than a trillion dollars from the deficit over the next decade. Congress's supercommittee has until Thanksgiving to do that. But there is growing pessimism that any agreement between the 12 lawmakers on the panel can be reached in time. A political impasse over taxes is holding up a deal. And as NPR's David Welna reports, testimony yesterday from budget-cutting commissions had little apparent effect on the bipartisan panel.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: In the waning days before the supercommittee's deadline for a deal, congressional GOP leaders continue to insist that an agreement can still be reached. That was House Speaker John Boehner's message to a crowd at the University of Louisville earlier this week.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Nobody thought that the committee's job would be easy, and clearly it hasn't been. And I don't think that anyone is at all surprised. But I have high hopes here, in the days ahead, that we can find common ground.

WELNA: But yesterday at the Capitol, Senate majority leader Harry Reid held out little hope for a deal. Boehner may want a grand bargain, he said, but added the speaker won't agree to any sacrifices from those with the most money.

SENATOR HARRY REID: So I would hope we can get something done there, but you know if they can't get it done, they can't get it done. You have to have - it takes two to tango.

WELNA: As Reid spoke, the supercommittee was holding what may have been its last public hearing. It was on two other debt reduction plans that were drawn up late last year. Both recommended a mix of spending cuts and increased tax revenues to cut the budget gap. Democratic senator Patty Murray of Washington co-chairs the supercommittee. She declared the time's come for each side to offer some serious compromises.

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: Democrats have made clear that we are prepared to do that. We've said we're very open to painful concessions and compromises if Republicans are as well, and we've put forward serious ideas to reflect that. But these concessions will only be made and only considered in the context of a balanced deal that doesn't just fall on the middle class and most vulnerable Americans.

WELNA: Big corporations and the wealthiest will have to share in the sacrifice, Murray added. What that means is that she and other Democrats want the rich paying more taxes. But her Republican co-chair, Texas Congressman Jeb Hensarling, spoke only of cutting spending on programs that Democrats cherish.

REPRESENTATIVE JEB HENSARLING: Unless we offer fundamental and structural reforms to our nation's entitlement programs, especially healthcare, we will not only end up failing in our duty, we may fail our nation as well.

WELNA: This tendency of committee members to talk past one another seemed to have a marked effect on the witnesses they'd called in to testify. One of them was Erskine Bowles, a fiscally conservative Democrat whose blue ribbon panel recommended nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction last year.

ERSKINE BOWLES: I have great respect for each of you, individually, but collectively, I'm worried you're going to fail.

WELNA: Former Clinton White House budget director Alice Rivlin told the panel the retirement of baby boomers means the government's costs are bound to keep going up.

ALICE RIVLIN: While growth in spending must be controlled, we do not believe that the projected tsunami of retirees can be absorbed by federal programs without increasing revenues. Stabilizing the debt by spending cuts alone would cripple essential government functions and responses to human needs.

WELNA: And former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, told the panel it simply had to come up with a plan.

SENATOR ALAN SIMPSON: People admire guts and courage. They may fight you, they may vilify you, but they will admire you.

WELNA: That is, if they do come up with a plan.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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