Sen. Max Baucus, he Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee,… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — If the congressional "super committee" fails in these final days, it will be up to American voters next year to decide how to tackle rising deficits: higher taxes or deep cuts in spending on Medicare.
The bipartisan panel plans to keep meeting over the weekend as it searches for a deal, but its 14-week effort to negotiate a long-term plan to reduce deficits by $1.5 trillion increasingly seems headed toward a fizzle.
That would mark another setback in Congress' ability to take control of the country's deficit problem. But indications from Wall Street are that markets would not be seriously rattled by the lack of a deal, and absent that immediate danger, neither side has enough motivation to yield to the other's demands.
Instead, the stalemate raises the stakes of next year's election. The choice voters will face over tax and spending issues is the same one that has stymied budget talks all year. Whichever party emerges on top after November's election will almost certainly assert a mandate for its preferred economic approach.
"The election looks like it's going to be about taxes, spending, entitlements — the rich versus the middle class," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst in Washington.
If Republicans win the presidency and both houses of Congress, it could rekindle interest in a budget like the one that passed the House this year — the proposal from Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin to greatly reduce spending on Medicare by creating a system that gives seniors stipends for a fixed amount of insurance coverage. Republicans also would like lower tax rates — or at least an extension of the George W. Bush-era income tax cuts, which are scheduled to expire at the end of 2012.
On the other hand, if President Obama wins reelection and Democrats keep control of the Senate, Democrats probably would try to block major changes in Medicare, although they might agree to trims as they have in super committee talks. They may push for a tax increase on the wealthy by allowing the top-end Bush cuts to expire.
Underlying these options is what could be described as an automatic, though partial, "grand bargain" to reduce deficits. If the committee fails to reach a deal, as expected, it would trigger $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts that would slice across most federal agencies, starting in January 2013. At that time, if the Bush-era tax cuts for top-end earners have expired, another $800 billion would be pumped into government coffers, meaning long-term deficits would be reduced by at least $2 billion. The credit rating agencies are counting on at least part of this savings to fend off another downgrade of U.S. debt.
Each party sees great political value in the campaign year ahead by pitching its plan — and pointing out what the other side would do. Republicans are already characterizing Obama and Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals, while the president and Democrats in Congress are painting their GOP opponents as beholden to the rich.
"The president loves pointing fingers at scapegoats, but regardless of what the super committee does, Obama will be judged based on the state of the economy, and right now that's a troubling prospect for him," said Kevin Madden, a GOP consultant and informal advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
However, a poll released Friday showed that if the super committee fails, the public will blame Republicans more than Democrats by a 10-point margin, making Democrats less inclined to cut a deal unless Republicans agree to increase revenue substantially.
"If the plan is to extend the Bush tax cuts and to repeal the Medicare guarantee for our seniors, well, that's not balanced and that's a place we cannot go," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said this week, raising doubts about the prospects for a far-reaching deal. "I don't hear anything that sounds big and bold."
These final days before the committee's deadlines — Monday to post a proposal and Wednesday to approve it — are likely to be filled with assigning blame as both parties seek an endgame that gives them maximum political advantage.
To be sure, Congress tends to work best when a deadline looms, and the super committee could still find compromise. Republicans made a $640-billion offer late Friday, with just $3 billion in new tax revenue that was scoffed at by Democrats.
Congressional leaders appear to have decided that the risk of failing to achieve a deal is not as dangerous as the risk of agreeing to one that angers their respective bases and removes a defining issue of the next election.
"The politicians care more about their parties and getting reelected than they do the very real problem," said Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a past leader on deficit efforts, who called the super committee a "mistake" in an interview airing Sunday on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program. "It was Washington's answer to kicking the can down the road."