The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — also known as the supercommittee — created by Congress this summer has just seven weeks to agree on a plan reducing projected deficits by more than a trillion dollars.
If that panel of six Democrats and six Republicans deadlocks, or if Congress rejects its work, by law automatic across-the-board budget cuts — half of them from defense spending — will be triggered. Already, talk is growing of undoing that trigger.
It would take at least seven of the supercommittee's politically divided members to approve any plan they come up with.
"A successful final product from this committee will not be one that any one of us would have written on our own — it will have to include compromises on all sides," said Democratic co-chairman Sen. Patty Murray of Washington at the supercommittee's first meeting last month.
Republicans in particular have insisted that anything less than a politically viable deficit reduction plan from the supercommittee by its Thanksgiving eve deadline would be unacceptable.
"Failure is not an option; the committee is structured to succeed," said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell the week the panel began its work.
But success is looking increasingly elusive. Speaker of the House John Boehner last month ruled out the increased tax revenues Democrats say have to be part of a plan to shrink deficits.
"Now tax increases, I think, are off the table," Boehner said. "And I don't think they're a viable option for the joint committee."
Rather than taxing the wealthy more, as Democrats would do, Republicans want only to cut spending, especially on big entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. So two weeks ago, President Obama drew his own line in the sand.
"I will not support any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans," Obama said. "And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share."
What Would An Agreement Look Like?
The gulf between what the president and the speaker of the House consider an acceptable deficit reduction plan is stoking pessimism about the supercommittee's prospects.
"I think it's quite unlikely that they will reach any kind of agreement," said Scott Lilly, a budget expert at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning Washington think tank.
Despite Lilly's doubts about the supercommittee's success, he does not believe Congress would accept the automatic spending cuts that would be triggered should the panel fail to agree on a plan. Lilly calls the trigger a paper tiger.
"I think that more and more people on the supercommittee and across the country are going to begin to realize that, and that won't help the supercommittee arrive at a conclusion. But I think it's reality," he said.
Congress agreed to that budget-slashing trigger back in early August as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling. Even at the time, No. 2 Senate Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona declared that the cuts in defense spending would be too much, saying the White House miscalculated.
"It is so draconian that it will not work. Even this president could not implement it," Kyl said.
Kyl now sits on the supercommittee, and his fellow Arizona Republican, Sen. John McCain, plans to block any automatic defense cuts resulting from a failure to agree on a plan.
"It's all hypothetical, but if a trigger were in effect, you would see an immediate action on the floor of both houses by those of us who are not ready to see the dismantling of our defense establishment," McCain said.
If across-the-board spending cuts were triggered, they would be spread out over a decade and not even begin until January 2013. That would leave lawmakers plenty of time to undo this consequence for inaction that is now written into law, according to GOP strategist and former top Republican aide Ron Bonjean.
"It sounds great at the time when you make a deal, like on the debt [ceiling]," Bonjean said. "But when it actually comes down the pike, and if Congress has something to do about it, they may be [like] Lucy trying to take the football away from Charlie Brown."
And the less Congress believes such a spending cut trigger would really be carried out, the less reason the supercommittee has to reach a deal.