WASHINGTON — With just 10 days left before a Thanksgiving deadline, members of a congressional supercommittee appear increasingly pessimistic about the odds of forging a debt-reduction deal, despite an unprecedented offer by Republicans to raise taxes.
The public debate has grown more divisive since both sides laid out new offers last week. Negotiators, already under attack from the left, are facing fresh pressure from the anti-tax right. And charges of betrayal are expected to intensify today when the House returns from a weeklong break, fueling concerns that a deal could emerge from the supercommittee only to die in the House or the Senate.
On Sunday, President Barack Obama said at a news conference in Hawaii that he hopes lawmakers will "bite the bullet and do what needs to be done."
Also Sunday, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the supercommittee's GOP co-chairman, said he hasn't "given up hope" that the panel can reach an agreement to reduce borrowing by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade. But Hensarling also embraced the prospect of failure.
"Listen, it's been a roller coaster ride," he said on CNN. "We haven't given up hope. But if this was easy, the president of the United States and the speaker of the House would have gotten it done themselves" during this summer's debt-limit showdown.
Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., a supercommittee member and the primary author of the latest GOP offer, was only somewhat more encouraging. Talks have reached "a difficult point," he said on Fox News Sunday. "I think we've got a ways to go."
Mathematically, the gap between the two sides on the supercommittee has narrowed. Republicans have offered a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package that would cut spending by about $750 billion over the next decade while raising about $500 billion in revenue, including about $300 billion in new taxes. Democrats have offered to trim borrowing by $2 trillion, with that sum equally divided between spending cuts and tax increases.
Factions of the 12-member panel worked through the weekend to try to bridge the divide. Many fear an impasse could destabilize financial markets and undermine the nation's rickety economic recovery.
"I think that there will be further erosion of what little confidence remains of our federal government" if the supercommittee fails, Toomey said. "I think it's really important that we be successful."
Financial analysts agree. When Congress created the supercommittee in August as part of legislation to raise the federal debt limit, global investors focused on the European debt crisis as their foremost concern. But with the formation of new governments in Greece and Italy, the U.S. stalemate threatens to once again draw investors' attention.
The markets have been "ignoring the elephant in the room," Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist of Mizuho Securities, wrote in a recent research note. Investors "have been focused like a laser beam on every twist and turn unfolding in the European sovereign debt crisis and have completely ignored the apparent lack of progress being made by the super committee."
By itself, failure to reach agreement may not have severe consequences, analysts said. If the supercommittee can't forge consensus, the law requires that $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board cuts be made to agency budgets, including the Pentagon, starting in January 2013. As long as that trigger remains in effect, the government will be on track to reduce future borrowing.
However, analysts said the United States could risk another downgrade of its credit rating and do further damage to business and consumer confidence if the supercommittee process implodes in a chaotic display of partisan rancor — for example, if a deal is approved by the supercommittee but is killed on the House floor. And analysts are deeply concerned that lawmakers could "de-trigger" the automatic cuts, undoing even the modest steps Congress has so far taken to tame the soaring debt.
But every day that passes without news of progress in the secretive supercommittee leaves the trigger looming larger. In 2013 alone, the Pentagon would lose $54.7 billion, a reduction that many view as devastating to national security. Medicare providers would take an $11 billion hit. Another $38 billion could force mass federal layoffs.
On Sunday, Hensarling said he's committed to making sure "America gets that $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction" one way or the other, though he said he expects lawmakers to try to implement the cuts in a "smarter fashion."
Asked about the trigger, Toomey said he's "not giving up on" the supercommittee reaching agreement. But "in the very, very unfortunate event that we don't," he said, "I think it's very likely that Congress would reconsider the configuration."