By ERIC LIPTON
Published: November 20, 2011
WASHINGTON — With the hours ticking away toward a self-imposed deadline, Congressional leaders conceded Sunday that talks on a sweeping deficit agreement were near failure and braced for recriminations over their inability to reach a deal.
The stalemate was the latest sign of partisan deadlock in Washington, which members of both parties do not expect to lift until the 2012 election has clarified which party has the upper hand.
Barring an unexpected turnaround before Monday’s deadline, the failure of the special Congressional deficit committee will be the third high-profile effort to fall short of a deal in the last 12 months, including a bipartisan deficit commission and talks last summer between President Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner.
By law, the special Congressional committee’s inability to reach an agreement will trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years to the military and domestic programs, to start in 2013.
As time wound down to a Monday night deadline for an agreement, Capitol Hill lacked the frenzied negotiation typical of a Congressional race to beat the clock. Instead, many members — well aware that Congressional approval ratings are near historic lows in polls — seemed resigned to the fact that Democrats and Republicans remained far apart on major budget issues, especially tax increases on the affluent, which Democrats insist must be part of any deficit solution and which Republicans oppose.
The White House called on the 12 members of the special committee to finish their work, but with no expectation of a breakthrough, the leaders of the committee planned to issue a statement on Monday acknowledging that they had failed to reach an agreement. And lawmakers on the panel, which is evenly divided between the two parties, blamed one another for the failure.
Many outside Washington, including on Wall Street, had low expectations for the committee, and some analysts predicted that the breakdown might not have a major effect on financial markets. But the developments added to the air of uncertainty at a time when the world economy is coping with Europe’s debt problems and a sluggish recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. Some members of Congress were vowing to pass legislation to repeal the automatic cuts, locked in by the law that raised the debt ceiling in August.
Once they return from their Thanksgiving recess, members of Congress face another set of decisions with the potential to hamstring the economy. A temporary payroll-tax cut for nearly all households and jobless benefits for many long-term unemployed are scheduled to expire at year’s end, and many economists predict that growth and hiring will slow further if such measures are not renewed.
On Sunday, in the halls of the Capitol and on television talk shows, Democrats and Republicans offered strikingly different post-mortems for the process.
Democrats blamed the Republicans for their unwillingness to yield on a no-new-taxes pact they signed at the request of a conservative antitax group, arguing that the American public realizes that no grand deal could be reached without a combination of spending cuts and new tax revenue.
“As long as we have some Republican lawmakers who feel more enthralled with a pledge they took to a Republican lobbyist than they do to a pledge to the country to solve the problems, this is going to be hard to do,” Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington and the committee’s co-chairwoman, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
But Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas, the co-chairman, said it was the Democrats’ inflexibility that had caused the impasse, particularly when it came to agreeing to major money-saving changes in social programs like Medicare and Social Security.
“Unfortunately, what we haven’t seen in these talks from the other side is any Democrats willing to put a proposal on the table that actually solves the problems,” Mr. Hensarling said on “Fox News Sunday.”
At the White House, officials made a final effort to spur the committee on to a solution. “Avoiding accountability and kicking the can down the road is how Washington got into this deficit problem in the first place,” a White House spokeswoman, Amy Brundage, said in a statement. “So Congress needs to do its job here and make the kind of tough choices to live within its means that American families make every day.”
The panel’s apparent failure has already become a topic in the 2012 presidential campaign. Mitt Romney, speaking in New Hampshire on Sunday, blamed President Obama, saying he should have been more involved in pushing for a deal.
“He hasn’t had any role. He’s done nothing,” Mr. Romney said. “This is another example of failed leadership.”
But another committee member, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said on “Meet the Press” that President Obama and White House budget officials “were asked to be hands off.”
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