WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats exchanged barbs but little else Thursday as Congress' super-committee limped toward a Nov. 23 deadline with no tangible evidence of progress on a deficit-reduction plan.
"They've never really put paper on the table. It's very frustrating," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said of Democrats.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a committee co-chair, countered.
"I believe that we have opened a door to negotiations in these last final hours that if they (Republicans) can come to an agreement on their side on revenue ... we'll be able to move forward," she told reporters.
Barring a compromise to reduce deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over a decade, automatic spending cuts of that amount will begin taking effect in 2013. Lawmakers in both parties say they want to avoid that, particularly defense hawks.
In addition, neither side appears to want to be the first to walk away from the bargaining table, particularly given the high hopes that committee members expressed when they embarked on their quest for a compromise.
The provision for automatic cuts was "designed to be ugly because we didn't want anybody to go there. And I'm going to do everything I can to ensure that we don't go there," Boehner said at a news conference.
Republicans and Democrats met separately during the day, and officials said a bipartisan group did, as well, although not all members of the supercommittee attended.
More than deficit reduction is at stake.
Democrats are hoping to use the legislation to enact at least a portion of President Barack Obama's jobs program as part of the bill, including an extension of payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits, and infrastructure construction.
In addition, lawmakers in both parties favor legislation to protect upper middle class constituents from the impact of the alternative minimum tax, and money is needed to make sure doctors treating Medicare patients are paid after Jan. 1.
Overall, the talks have been stymied over taxes – which Republicans historically refuse to raise – and benefit programs such as Medicare and Social Security – which Democrats normally are loath to cut – the same politically charged issues that have bedeviled similar attempts to rein in federal deficits in recent years.
Ironically, prospects for agreement seemed to sour when Republicans proposed to increase tax revenue by $250 billion as part of an overhaul of the IRS code that would reduce the top tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent and cut back on numerous tax deductions.
Republicans cited the offer as a potential breakthrough, given their longstanding opposition to tax increases, and it has sparked dissent inside the party.
But far from welcoming the proposal, Democrats attacked it as a tax cut for the wealthy in disguise.
Simultaneously, Democrats on the committee yielded to pressure from liberals to jettison an earlier proposal they had made to slow the growth in annual cost-of-living increases for Social Security benefits.