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The Supercommittee that Wasn't So Super

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her travelling companions embark on the Yellow Brick Road in search of the great and powerful Oz. Dorothy believes she can't return to Kansas without the help of the wizard who resides in the Emerald City.

"I am Oz!" the wizard bellows when Dorothy finally gains an audience with him. But the gig is up once Toto reveals that the wizard is simply a man barking into a microphone and pulling a bunch of levers. That creates the illusion of an intimidating and all-powerful wizard.

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" the man implores.

To no avail.

"You're a very bad man," Dorothy scolds.

"Oh, no my dear. I'm a very good man," the man pleads. "Just a very bad wizard."

Turns out, he wasn't a wizard at all. Just Oscar Diggs of Omaha, NE. With no special powers to brag of.

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A moment of dénouement is a signature of all good films, plays and literature. And the two months' traffic that's commanded the Washington stage is no different. Since summer, Congress has travelled a Yellow Brick Road of sorts, in hopes that the Congressional Supercommittee is a mighty and powerful wizard capable of engineering the impossible and returning Washington to fiscal Kansas.

The special bicameral, bipartisan panel of 12 lawmakers created by Congress to mine the federal budget for $1.2 trillion in spending has arrived at a pivotal point. It has until November 23 to craft a deficit reduction plan. If it doesn't, automatic cuts kick in, through what's known as a "sequester." A sequester is a Congressional bookkeeping mechanism designed to seal off funds from lawmakers.

We'll soon know if the Congressional Supercommittee lives up to its billing and is a great and powerful wizard. Or really isn't that super.

One thing's for sure, though. Toto is already racing about, searching for a curtain And the word on Capitol Hill is that the product the supercommittee might produce is worthy of Oscar Diggs of Omaha.

"They'll probably do what I said they would do all along. Lop off the low-hanging fruit and the rest will go into the sequester," lamented one senior Congressional leadership aide.

There are no supercommittee meetings scheduled this weekend as the members continue to chat informally in small groups and on the phone. A few of the members are barely involved at all. In some respects, many Capitol Hill hands are amazed that the supercommittee has made it this long, even outlasting Kim Kardashian's marriage. Regardless, some supercommittee members seem ready to call it splitsville.

"We want our lives back," joked Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who was picked for the supercommittee thanks to his stewardship of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

The sticking point continues to be taxes. Which is the same issue that confounded negotiators all summer long as they tried to craft a "grand bargain" to hike the debt ceiling, cleave spending and avoid a federal default. Democrats are insisting on tax increases. Republicans are holding the line.

It should come as little surprise that everyone is locked into the same positions where they were this summer. That's because the political climate hasn't changed and the players haven't changed.

At a briefing for reporters earlier this week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) appeared to crack the door open to the possibility of revenues to help the supercommittee forge a package.

"There's room for revenue but there clearly is a limit to the revenues that may be available," said Boehner.

That's the conundrum now facing supercommittee members like Fred Upton.

"At the end of the day, we have to have a real live number," Upton said, noting that "the dials will have to be moved."

A "moving of the dials" means the sides agree to compromise, conceding on some issues and accepting small victories on others. But they're not there yet.

Even though the political climate of the summer hasn't changed, Boehner said that lawmakers have grown somber about the stakes if the supercommittee fails.

"This is hard stuff. We're talking about stuff we have never talked about in Congress," said Boehner. "Ever."

Boehner sees the shift in the willingness of both parties to at least try to carve $1.2 trillion in spending. The Ohio Republican contrasted today's atmosphere to the gnashing of teeth that came with a 2005 budget reduction bill.

"We were trying to cut $40 billion and you would have though we were trying to steal member's first born," Boehner said.

Republicans are in a particularly tight spot. The GOP has insisted they won't allow new taxes. And "revenues" can be nearly as toxic. Nearly all Congressional Republicans and some Democrats have signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge sponsored by Grover Norquist and his group Americans for Tax Reform. The pledge commits lawmakers to oppose tax increases. The question now is would any sort of "revenue" increase count as a tax increase?

For the record, when asked by NBC's Luke Russert about Norquist's influence on House Republicans, Boehner described Norquist as "some random person in America."

If the supercommittee falls short, the Pentagon fears that defense programs could face a $500 billion sequester. On Tuesday, the heads of the four branches of service appeared before the House Armed Services Committee to warn against slashing the military.

"If we're not decisively dominant, we can still win," said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. "But at the cost of the lives or our men and women."

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services panel. He argues that lawmakers should pull out all the stops to avoid a supercommittee failure.

"Large, immediate, across the board cuts to the defense budget, which would occur under sequestration, could do serious damage to our national security," Smith said at the hearing. "In order to avoid these large cuts and the resulting job losses, we're going to have to stop repeating ideological talking points and address our budget problems comprehensively, through smarter spending and enhanced revenue."

In other words, cave on revenue dogma to keep the country safe.

Regardless, the supercommittee is right up against its deadline. And communication between the supercommittee and many lawmakers appears to work no better than the phone in the St. Louis Cardinals' bullpen.

"It isn't something that I get a report or the Speaker gets a report," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), who heads the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said he's even leaned on his longtime friend, Assistant House Minority Leader and supercommittee member Jim Clyburn (D-SC) for information. But Clyburn hasn't volunteered much to his fellow CBCer.

"I'm like ‘Jim, it's me,'" said Cleaver when he's asked for a supercommittee status report from Clyburn. But to no avail."(The Ethics) Committee and the supercommittee tend to hold confidentiality."

This dearth of information is now casting a pall on Congress, as people suspect the supercommittee is doomed.

"The mood is one of nervousness," said Boehner. "There is pressure on both sides of the aisle and leadership."

This comes as Congress has taken the nation to the brink on several occasions this year alone. There were two flirtations with possible government shutdowns. Lawmakers averted one shutdown in April by mere hours. In August, Congress narrowly avoided a federal default when it okayed a debt ceiling increase and created the supercommittee.

To some, the constant histrionics are just too much.

"People looking at Washington, what I hear is that this place scares them. We can't do basic, fundamental tasks," said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT). "They don't want us to go through these one-minute-to-midnight melodramas that threaten our financial security."

Republicans say their constituents are also weary of Washington's perpetual state of crisis.

"The American people are sick of this craziness that doesn't allow the system to work," said Rep. Tom Price (R-GA).

So Congress again finds itself facing another climactic moment. For his part, Boehner practically ruled out any extension for the supercommittee's deadline. And it's widely thought that Congress wouldn't have the votes to grant the panel more time.

"Either we succeed or we go to the sequester," said Boehner starkly. "The sequester is ugly."

So no full meetings are scheduled this weekend. One senior House aide with knowledge of the supercommittee's workings suggested that this was an effort to step away from the stove for a moment.

"Stop watching and it might boil," said the aide optimistically. "But so far, (it's) the longest simmer ever."

There are now conversations among Congressional leaders about ways to mitigate the sequester or at least spare the Pentagon some of the cuts. And if that happens, the supercommittee will have failed.

It's important to note that the name "supercommittee" is a moniker popularized by the press and pundits for "The United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction." The word "super" is nowhere to be found.

That's similar to the Wizard of Oz. He wasn't a great and powerful wizard after all. Just a guy from Omaha.

But in the Emerald City, everyone liked the idea of a wizard to solve their problems.

Just as those on Capitol Hill hoped a wise and powerful supercommittee could solve their problems, too.