Supercommittee Unlikely To Make Deadline

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Failure of the supercommittee to find the $1.2 trillion in cuts it was charged to identify are expected to trigger automatic budget cuts that start in 2013. Meanwhile, many in Congress assumed the group would include in its bill extensions of a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits — both of which will expire at the end of December unless Congress acts to extend them. NPR's Tamara Keith speaks to Robert Siegel with the latest from Capitol Hill.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with a failure. The congressional supercommittee had nearly three months to couple together a plan that would trim $1.2 trillion from the deficit. But the bipartisan panel didn't come close. The supercommittee's co-chairs released a statement late today. And it read, in part: We end this process united in our belief that the nation's fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve.

President Obama also weighed in late today. He, too, stressed that this is not the end of efforts to cut the deficit.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Although Congress has not come to an agreement yet, nothing prevents them from coming up with an agreement in the days ahead.

SIEGEL: The president also made clear that he would fight any move to short-circuit automatic spending cuts meant to kick in - in the case of a supercommittee failure.

Well, NPR's Tamara Keith joins us now from Capitol Hill with more on the day's events. And first, Tamara, why did today become the final day to act, and not Wednesday which was the official deadline in the law?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, the law that created the supercommittee said that the plan needed to be visible and available for 48 hours before a vote. Wednesday was to be the vote, today would be 48 hours before that. And, you know, the committee has largely done its work in private. They haven't released paper copies of any of the offers or counteroffers that have been made behind closed doors. We've heard sort of drips and drops over time. And so, those 48 hours would have been quite valuable if in fact there was a deal, which of course we now know there wasn't.

SIEGEL: Well, now that the committee has failed, finger pointing has no doubt begun. Is there any one area of disagreement over what people are pointing to?

KEITH: Well, there's lots of agreement actually over what to disagree about. They agree to disagree about taxes. Democrats felt that the Bush era tax cuts that are supposed to expire at the end of next year would have helped greatly with the deficit problems if they had allowed those to expire on the highest income earners. Republicans said no way, that's a no go, and let the fighting continue. That just became the issue that they just could not bridge.

SIEGEL: Now, the law that created the supercommmittee also created an enforcement mechanism and the language only spoken on Capitol Hill, it was called the sequester, a set of automatic spending cuts that would take effect if Congress failed to come up with the cuts. When does that begin?

KEITH: So, it's $1.2 trillion in cuts that will take effect over a decade, starting in 2013. Now, there's a lot of time between now and 2013. And that's plenty of time for Congress to rewrite the rules or to come up with some other way of dealing with it. Those cuts would be divided between military spending and discretionary domestic spending. And a lot of folks are concerned about the military spending in particular, but that's not entirely clear that Congress will be able to come up with an agreement on that because they haven't been able to come up with an agreement on much of anything else.

SIEGEL: Now, it was assumed that if the supercommittee reached a deal, the big deal would also encompass two more immediate concerns, which are unemployment benefits, extending them, and also extending President Obama's payroll tax cut. What happens with those two items now that there's no larger agreement?

KEITH: Well, those items are now on the agenda for December, which is looking to have a pretty busy agenda. In addition to that, the temporary funding mechanism for the entire federal government expires on December 16th. And so, they're going to have to come up with another extension or some other way of funding the government.

And in terms of the tax cuts and the benefits extensions, many economists say that those are absolutely vital and need to continue going. So there will be pressure on Congress in December for sure.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's Tamara Keith speaking with us from Capitol Hill. Thank you, Tamara.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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