Blame, Uncertainty as Supercommittee Gives In

WASHINGTON — The so-called supercommittee's admission of defeat Monday raised new questions about the way forward for Congress and the trickle-down effects for politics and federal spending in Texas.

Congress’s deficit-reducing “supercommittee,” co-chaired by U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, said it could not reach a deal by its deadline.

The move also drew the ire of many Texas lawmakers unhappy with the Democratic Party, the White House and Washington in general as they face an uncertain, messy end to the legislative year.

The supercommittee is a panel of 12 lawmakers — three Republicans and three Democrats each from the U.S. House and Senate — appointed as part of last summer's debt-ceiling deal. Their charge was to find at least $1.2 trillion in 10-year deficit reductions or risk “triggering” that amount in cuts to defense and domestic programs over the decade.

For procedural reasons, their Nov. 23 deadline made agreement on a plan necessary by Monday. After months of open hearings and closed-door negotiations, lawmakers indicated over the weekend that the possibility of a deal was fading.

One major sticking point was tax rates for the most wealthy, according to reports and party leaders’ statements that came as the committee’s prospects dimmed. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on Twitter that Republicans “insisted on expanding tax giveaways” to millionaires.

The office of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the supercommittee failed “because President Obama and Washington Democrats insisted on dramatic tax hikes on American job creators, which would make our economy worse,” The Hill reported.

The demise proves deficit-cutting will persist as a nasty problem in Washington. If and when Texas voters take that out on Hensarling or other incumbents remains an open question.

Texas politics

Hensarling’s moment to shine as a deal broker on the supercommittee has passed, but local fallout for him is doubtful, said Jonathan Neerman, the former chairman of the Dallas County GOP. The failure to reach a deal could even look like a win to conservatives.

“Right or wrong, I think that the conservative stalwarts who wanted no tax increases will see this as a victory," Neerman said. "I think they would rather see no deal than a deal that adds tax increases.” 

Hensarling was first elected to Congress in 2002. He is chairman of the House Republican Conference, and his appointment to co-lead the supercommittee with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was closely watched.

He will still have the Dallas business community to contend with. Developers and lenders are looking for certainty about the federal budget, regulations and tax codes, Neerman said. Last-minute scrambling in Washington does little to clear up that picture. But Hensarling’s good local reputation can buoy him, and the supercommittee’s flop will be a wonky, difficult campaign issue, he said.

“He is so well thought-of in his district and by conservative Republicans around the region that I don't think there’ll be any negative impact on him," Neerman said. "Voters will see this as a Washington problem."

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said the breakdown would do little to help members of an already unpopular Congress.

“You can’t underestimate the public,” Cuellar said. “I’ve always said this. They know what’s going on. They know who’s been the stumbling block.”

Tom Pauken, the former chairman of the Texas GOP, said he doesn’t see the potential for much further damage for incumbents.

“I’m not sure that people are going to pay any more of a price in Congress for not getting a deal than they have already, because my sense is you have a very low opinion," said Pauken, who is now chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission

In a joint statement Monday evening, Hensarling and Murray said that despite the committee’s failure, “we end this process united in our belief that the nation's fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve.”

Defense spending 

If last-resort spending cuts go into effect in 2013 as planned, billions fewer dollars in defense spending could flow to states. That could hit Texas hard. Fort Hood, for example, ranks behind only Washington in top places for “military spending on personnel and contracts," according to a new Bloomberg Government study.

Under last summer’s plan, roughly half the cuts would be to defense programs and half to domestic programs.

Hensarling indicated he hoped the 50-50 ratio could change before the cuts hit, The Associated Press reported. Some Senate Republicans have pledged legislation to do that, but President Barack Obama and Boehner have both indicated they would oppose such efforts.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, one of Texas’ most outspoken voices on defense, “supports finding a way to cut at least $1.2 trillion that does not jeopardize the effectiveness of our military,” spokesman Mike Rosen said in an email. If there is a way to determine such cuts before 2013, McCaul would support it, Rosen said.

Cuellar, another prominent voice on the U.S. military and on border security, said he opposed repealing the automatic cuts but suggested he was open to modifying them.

“Will it have an impact? Yes it will,” Cuellar said. “It’s going to be one that could be affecting everybody. Now, can we set priorities? Yes, definitely we can.”

Delegation reactions

The Texas delegation on Monday expressed plenty of frustration, even before Hensarling and Murray officially called it quits.

“I am ready to protect Fort Bliss, its personnel and troops, from any proposed cuts or downsizing due to [Republicans’] inability on the supercommittee to come together and work for the common good of our country,” Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, said in a statement.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican who is retiring at the end of her term, said in a statement that deficit reduction “must be the single-minded goal of Congress for the remainder of this year, and if necessary, for the remainder of next year.”

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, criticized the committee for blowing its deadline. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, blasted the group for failing to cut even a “laughably small amount.” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Conroe, said that while the automatic cuts are not perfect, they are necessary, and he opposes lowering the amount.

And Reps. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, on Twitter called for a return to the regular legislative process. In his typically colorful way, Gohmert added: “Let wimps go to Greece w/other weak reps.”

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.