(Top, left to right) Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas; Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan;…
Reporting from Washington — The congressional "super committee" on deficit reduction has extraordinary new power to chart the nation's budget and policy decisions for the next decade. What it doesn't have is a meeting room.
Or a staff director. Or clear rules to govern the bipartisan panel that in three months is expected to recommend $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, a massive undertaking that many are skeptical will succeed.
Think of the new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction as a congressional pop-up panel. It has fewer than 100 days to resolve some of the most partisan fights over taxes and entitlement policy that have stymied Washington for decades. When it runs out of days, the committee disappears.
With newly appointed lawmakers scrambling to get the committee up and running before it's time to take it down, it has become apparent that Washington's largest budget reform effort in 20 years is being launched on the fly.
"They're in a situation where every day counts," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-founder of the nonpartisan group No Labels. "I hope very much they're not counting the last two weeks of August as breathing space before the real work begins."
The panel's makeshift nature could be yet another factor that turns an already daunting assignment into the nearly impossible, as lawmakers lack time and resources to achieve their goal. Or the super committee's infrastructural underpinnings could provide the right mix of agility and pressure needed to promote swift agreement.
Giving Congress plenty of time to solve a problem has rarely led to quicker results. The U.S. narrowly averted a crisis over paying its bills this month when the debt ceiling fight went down to the final hours. Congress also took a potential government shutdown to the last day in April before agreeing to a budget deal.
Those debates dragged on because neither Republicans nor Democrats showed an inclination to give ground on issues related to budgets, deficits or debt. Many in Washington expect the super committee to end in a similar standoff, even though it has incentive to compromise: If the committee fails to agree on enough reductions, automatic spending cuts that neither side wants will be triggered. But that wouldn't happen until 2013, allowing plenty of time for more debate.
The first goal of the super committee is modest: Figure out when to meet. By law, the panel must convene by Sept. 16, a requirement included in the deal to increase the debt ceiling. But right after President Obama signed the legislation, Congress left town for its August recess.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the Democratic co-chairwoman, has spoken to each super committee member since the 12 were appointed last week. Staffs confer daily. With the Republican co-chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Murray and the others are working "on a path forward to deliver the balanced and bipartisan results the American people expect and deserve," her spokesman Eli Zupnick said.
Sensing the urgency of the situation, some committee members have suggested cutting short their monthlong break to get to work.
Republicans particularly like this suggestion because of the partisan imagery it would provide: Congress rolling up its sleeves to solve the nation's budget problems while Obama is vacationing with his family in Martha's Vineyard. Some lawmakers may return early to Washington even if the super committee cannot convene all 12 members.
The subsequent meetings will bring the real work, after the organizational issues are resolved.
For example, it will take a majority on the panel to send its recommendations to Congress — a steep hurdle given the evenly divided number of Democrats and Republicans. Any member can offer a minority view, according to the law. But if several members do so, would that eat into the majority agreement?
Another question has flared over which budgetary starting point the committee should use as it begins to chisel away at deficits. The committee is tasked with finding at least $1.5 trillion in savings over the next decade with spending cuts, taxes or a combination. Past efforts stalemated on a fundamental disagreement: Republicans refuse to consider new taxes and Democrats are unwilling to cut entitlement programs unless new revenue is part of the deal.
Republicans say the current budget base line should be used. That approach would not count potential revenue coming at the end of 2012, when tax cuts President George W. Bush gave to upper-income households and others are set to expire. Democrats want to factor in some of that revenue boost.
The lack of agreement on these and other issues has not dissuaded others from seeking to influence the super committee before it formally starts.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent all 12 members a letter this week outlining its priorities — reduced government spending on Medicare, Social Security and other entitlements, along with a restructured tax code and lower tax rates. A group seeking to spare Social Security from cuts launched a website highlighting the positions of each super committee member on the issue. A watchdog group called on committee members to decline campaign donations while they are on the panel.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader, recently restated their opposition to new taxes.
Some things are certain for the committee. It must make its recommendations by Nov. 23. Congress must vote on those recommendations no later than Dec. 23.
And perhaps the most important deadline: On Jan. 31 the super committee "shall terminate."