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Supercommittee's Failure Could Have Super Political Fallout

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, left, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., center, co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on a Deficit Reduction, with Sen. Jon Kyl, arrive for a Sept. 2011 meeting,
J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, left, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., center, co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on a Deficit Reduction, with Sen. Jon Kyl, arrive for a Sept. 2011 meeting,

With the members of the congressional deficit-cutting supercommittee essentially announcing that they couldn't get to "yes," the nation is only seeing the latest turn of the screw in the partisan paralysis gripping policymakers in Washington. We all know it is far from the last.

Coming as it does now less than a year before the 2012 general election, the panel's failure to achieve at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction means each major political will now be focused on trying to persuade voters that the other party is more responsible for the impasse.

So how might the historic failure of the congressional supercommittee play out politically?

Incumbents - It's gotten to the point where you now expect to see the words "Congress and "dysfunctional" in the same sentence. Congress has a 9 percent approval rating for a reason. That can only be reinforced by the high-profile panel's failure.

It's difficult to see how this helps congressional incumbents, easier to see it helping challengers. It could fuel another, anti-incumbent wave election which could hurt Republicans in the House, though probably not enough to end their control, and harm Democratic efforts to hold on to their slim majority in the Senate.

President Obama - He could get hurt by the "throw the bums out" sentiment the supercommittee's failure may engender. Mitt Romney, the odds-on favorite for the presidential nomination, is hoping to inflict supercommittee collateral damage on Obama, accusing him of a failure of leadership. Some congressional Republicans are making the same argument.

That seems a harder argument to make, however, than the one Obama has and will continue to make about a do-nothing Congress. The supercommittee now becomes the poster child, an additional piece of evidence in his case against Congress, specifically Republican lawmakers who accuses of being main stumbling block to his efforts to improve the nation's economy.

Democrats versus Republicans - In credible polls, a majority of Americans have indicated a preference for the so-called balanced approach to deficit reduction, one that includes higher taxes and spending cuts.

Both parties will argue that they put on the table higher revenues and spending cuts, though the revenues congressional Republicans offered didn't come from higher taxes but the proposed sale of government assets and other measures.

Democratic lawmakers can and have already argued that their proposal resembled more what many voters say they prefer. They also have going for them poll after poll that suggest that more Americans blame the GOP for the repeated dead ends than Democrats.

Congressional Democrats will also be able to coordinate their messages with the president who has the bully pulpit at his disposal. Those are significant advantages.

In anticipation of the supercommittee's failure, some Republicans raised the prospect of undoing automatic spending cuts that are supposed to ensue in 2013, especially those affecting defense spending, in the event the panel came up empty handed.

How that would play out is anyone's guess. Democrats have indicated they would try to block such efforts. But that move has some risks for them, too, since it could make them vulnerable to Republican charges of endangering national security.

Democrats, for their part, could accuse Republicans of changing rules they agreed on when the committee was created, raising questions about their seriousness when it comes to making the hard decisions required by governing.

Even before we get to the automated cuts however, the supercommittee's failure sets up some nearer term fights that Democrats and Republicans will surely use to frame next year's presidential and election races.

Many lawmakers had hoped, for instance, that the supercommittee would reach an agreement that would take care of certain important fiscal items that are expiring, like an unemployment insurance extension and the payroll tax holiday. Those now, once again, become political footballs.

GOP presidential race - As mentioned earlier, Romney is attempting to pin the supercommittee's failure on Obama. That would seem to suggest that Romney saw the supercommittee as playing a legitimate role.

Not so, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker. During the summer, he had called the supercommittee a "truly dumb idea" and on Monday welcomed its failure.

That would seem to set up a fairly lively disagreement between the two men who now appear tied at the top of the Republican field of presidential candidates.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.