WASHINGTON — The "supercommittee" of Congress charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in federal deficit savings over the next decade will give the public a rare peek into its thinking Wednesday.
Then the 12-member bipartisan panel probably will go back behind closed doors, aiming to meet a rapidly approaching deadline to craft the kind of big budget deal that's eluded the White House and congressional leaders for months.
The committee has until Nov. 23 to finalize a plan, but it probably will need to have a blueprint in place sooner so that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office can analyze its recommendations.
Signals are mixed about the panel's progress; no one outside really knows how close or far it is from a deal. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Monday, "I'm still hopeful. We're making progress."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., was more circumspect. "We are being asked in a very short period of time to do something that Congress has been unable to do in a longer period of time. And the jury is still out as to whether or not we'll be able to accomplish that goal," he told National Public Radio on Sunday.
If the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction comes up with a plan, Congress will have until Dec. 23 to act on it. Unless a plan is agreed to, automatic spending cuts that total as much as $1 trillion over nine years would go into effect, starting in 2013. Half would come from a broad range of domestic programs and half from defense. Another $200 billion in savings would come from reduced interest payments once the automatic cuts occurred.
The supercommittee, which consists of six Democrats and six Republicans from both the Senate and the House of Representatives, will hear Wednesday from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf. He's expected to discuss and field questions on strategies for saving money on domestic discretionary spending on programs such as education or transportation.
While the committee's secrecy has frustrated the armies of Washington-watchers used to seeing every budget nuance debated on Capitol Hill, it's crucial to the mission's success, said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
"The secrecy is the only way this has a prayer of succeeding," she said.
If information leaked on terms of a deal, lawmakers would face a torrent of criticism from partisans, ideologues and lobbyists, making it harder for them to compromise. So no one who really knows anything is talking.
But budget-watchers and insiders close to lawmakers fear that while the deficit-cutting goal will be reached, it will be done with a lot of technical gimmicks.
Steve Bell, the senior director of the Economic Policy Project at Washington's Bipartisan Policy Center, thought the panel could "save" about $440 billion by assuming savings from winding down U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by changing how the government calculates the Consumer Price Index for certain benefits.
Some hints about the supercommittee's deliberations have emerged. There are serious discussions about overhauling the corporate tax code. Perhaps, it's been suggested, there could be a reduction in the corporate tax rate, satisfying Republicans, while several loopholes could be closed, pleasing Democrats.
There's also been anguish over the prospect of big military cuts, which has angered many Republicans. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a supercommittee member, told the Heritage Foundation research center last month that the Pentagon shouldn't face any more cuts.
The key problem in reaching an agreement remains: Democrats, particularly House members, won't consider serious cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly and some people with disabilities, until Republicans are willing to agree to raise taxes. And vice versa.
"The two caucuses appear to be far apart," said Bell, a former Senate Budget Committee staff director. "The only two questions that matter are whether we fundamentally restructure Medicare, and whether we raise revenues."
The supercommittee has had three public sessions so far. In the first, members made brief statements. The second featured Elmendorf, and a third dealt with taxes.
The panel also has had at least seven private meetings, several conference calls and Democrats-only and Republicans-only sessions. It met privately last week for more than two hours with members of the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Six," which worked for months earlier this year on a major deficit-reduction plan.
Afterward, supercommittee members had little to say, though there were hints that they were concerned that the Gang's $3.7 trillion, 10-year deficit-reduction plan lacked specifics.
In the weeks ahead, the committee is considering one or two more hearings, perhaps including Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. They co-chaired a bipartisan commission last year that recommended nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction through 2020.
Their plan — which included limits on spending, overhauling the tax code and dramatic changes in Social Security and health care programs — is seen as a possible model for legislative action.
No one is willing to handicap prospects for a supercommittee agreement with any confidence.
"Maybe," Bell said, "they'll surprise me."
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