Deadline Approaches For Supercommittee's Deal

With the deadline for action from the deficit-cutting supercommittee just a week from Wednesday, not even the outlines of a deal have emerged. The 12-member group must approve at least $1.2 trillion in budget cuts and revenue increases — or unleash automatic cuts split between defense and domestic programs starting in 2013. NPR's Tamara Keith joins Melissa Block to provide an update.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Washington seems to thrive on the sharp edge of a deadline, and there are a couple of big ones coming up. First, Congress needs to pass a bill to keep the government funded past Friday. And then by next Wednesday, the so-called supercommittee is supposed to come up with $1.2 trillion in budget cuts to trim the deficit.

NPR's Tamara Keith joins us now from Capitol Hill to talk through this big to-do list. And, Tamara, let's deal quickly with that first deadline I mentioned: the federal government currently operating on a temporary spending measure, which expires Friday. Are we headed for another government shut down?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, I'm happy to report that no, not this time. We're not headed for a government shut down. There appears to be a broad agreement to approve another continuing resolution. This one would keep the government funded through the middle of December, and it's bundled into what's called a minibus - which is a cute, little name - that combines some appropriations bills for several departments. And this one includes agriculture, transportation, housing and urban development, commerce and justice. And both the House and Senate are expected to vote on a compromise measure for that later this week.

BLOCK: OK. Minibus, not an omnibus. Let's move on...

KEITH: Right.

BLOCK: ...to the more important deadline, the one facing the supercommittee that we mentioned. They have nine days to come up with a deal. How close are they?

KEITH: Well, wouldn't we all like to know? Yeah. I'm beginning to think that some members of the supercommittee don't even really know how close they are. Republicans offered a proposal last week that would raise revenues. That was seen as a breakthrough because taxes have been a huge sticking point. But immediately, Democrats said it didn't go far enough. And, you know, there have probably been a ton of other proposals that we haven't even heard about.

BLOCK: Now Tamara, the pressure point here on the supercommittee was supposed to be that if they failed to come up with a plan to cut the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion, there's a trigger mechanism, right? There was supposed to be automatic spending cuts, sequestration?

KEITH: Sequestration, yes. There's supposed to be, if they don't come up with a deal, $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. Those would largely leave medical care and Social Security alone, but they would cut from other domestic spending and defense at about a 50-50 ratio. And there's been a lot of not so quiet rambling, particularly from Republicans who are very concern about the defense cuts. And they're talking about possibly rewriting the rules so the cuts wouldn't hit defense so hard.

President Obama has said, you know, they really just need to get this done. But when he was asked whether he would veto changes to the spending cuts, he wouldn't actually say whether or not he would veto it. He said he'd have to see the legislation but that he's still holding out for Congress to have some sort of light bulb aha moment sometimes in the next few days.

BLOCK: Tamara, what about the mood around the Capitol? Does it seem9 that an agreement is in the cards or actually that failure might be in the cards?

KEITH: You know, no one is saying they're sure that something is going to happen, but they are also not saying that they're sure that this process is going to fail. There's a general feeling that committee members don't want to fail. They don't want to be seen as failures. So there are some talk that the committee will go part of the way to the $1.2 trillion and then punt the rest of it to tax committees, though it's not clear how that would work either.

BLOCK: And Tamara, one last question before we let you go. The House wants to take up a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution this week. Why now and what are the chances?

KEITH: Yeah. A balanced-budget amendment has been an idea that's been kicking around for quite awhile. It was last seriously entertained by Congress in the mid 1990s. They're bringing it up this week as part of the debt-limit deal that also brought us the supercommittee. That deal said that by the end of the year, both the House and Senate would vote on a balanced-budget amendment. This measure that's set to come up this week would require the federal government not to spend more than it's taking in. These constitutional amendments though require a two-thirds supermajority in both houses and then ratification by 38 states. So in other words, the chances of this happening and making it all the way are slim.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Tamara Keith at the Capitol. Tamara, thanks.

KEITH: Thank you.

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