A congressional "super committee" tasked with slashing the federal budget and cutting the deficit has less than a month left to finish its work. If it fails, mandatory across-the-board spending cuts of $1.2 trillion will take place.
No members of Minnesota's congressional delegation sit on the committee, formally known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, but several said they are skeptical that an agreement is possible.
"Who knows? I don't think anybody knows what they're doing," said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 7th Congressional District. He's been on Capitol Hill for 20 years, but shrugs his shoulders when asked about the super committee's progress.
That's because the committee has largely met in secret, although it did host an open session recently in the Hart Senate Office Building. Seating for the public -- as well as other members of Congress -- was in short supply.
Little of the committee's work has filtered out to the public, although some general bargaining positions are known. Republicans on the 12-person panel want to cut deficits by about $2.2 trillion over 10 years through spending cuts. Democrats want to carve out at least $2.5 trillion in savings by cutting spending and raising taxes.
Peterson and other agriculture leaders in the House and Senate are drafting a new farm bill that recommends major cuts to agricultural subsidies, to head off the possibility of even deeper cuts from the super committee.
U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, the freshman Republican from Minnesota's 8th District, sounded an even more pessimistic note.
"Praying for the best, expecting the worst," said the Navy veteran, who worries about the major defense spending cuts which would be part of the automatic, across-the-board reductions.
Even those who think a deal may yet be possible tend to choose their words carefully.
DFL Rep. Tim Walz, who represents the 1st District, said he was "pragmatically optimistic."
"I think it's going to be very hard, to be very honest with you," he said. "I'm still hopeful that we're working there."
The threatened automatic cuts have been sold as a way to compel both parties to reach a deal. But former DFL Rep. Tim Penny says there may be less than meets the eye to those cuts, because they won't take effect until 2013, after next year's election.
Each member of Congress is "probably reserving the hope that their party wins the election, and therefore can revisit this issue before the cuts are implemented," Penny said.
But even if next year's election doesn't change the balance of power in Washington, Penny said he's dubious that the automatic cuts will actually stick, based on his own experience in Congress.
"It just brought to mind in the 1980s when we had across-the-board cuts," Penny said. "Except for the very first go-around, for the next several years we always passed a subsequent budget resolution that delayed the cuts and stretched out the deadlines."
Rep. Collin Peterson agrees that partisanship and the election cycle are likely to get in the way of budget cutting.
"My guess is they'll do something that won't be the entire $1.2 trillion and then punt the rest into next year," Peterson said.
If the super committee does wind up deadlocked, former Rep. Tim Penny said its failure could be politically convenient for both parties ahead of the election.
"They are most likely to opt for a campaign strategy that allows us, for one more year, to simply point fingers and place blame," he said.
Penny said the only way to cut the deficit is for both parties to leave their comfort zones on hot button issues such as taxes and entitlements, something he's seen little evidence of so far.