For all the tumult that's embroiled the Congressional supercommittee in recent weeks, it will ultimately come down to one thing.
It's the same thing these big debates always boil down to. It doesn't matter whether it's the TARP bailout bill, health care reform, averting a government shutdown or raising the debt ceiling.
In Congress, it's ALWAYS about whether they can get the votes.
Here we'll demonstrate just how hard it could be to conjure up the votes in the supercommittee for a plan, let alone on the floors of the House and Senate.
As part of August's debt limit increase, Congress created the elite supercommittee of six Republicans and six Democrats to forge an agreement by November 23. Such a deal would eliminate $1.2 trillion in spending over the next decade. If the committee fails, Congress still slashes $1.2 trillion. But the cuts are automatic without the input and blessing of individual lawmakers. It's accomplished through a Congressional green eyeshade process known as "sequestration." This is where a supercommittee failure automatically "sequesters" the money away, much the way a judge might sequester a jury.
And so far, the supercommittee appears deadlocked at finding a compromise.
So it's about finding the votes.
If the supercommittee can convince at least seven of its 12 members to okay a given plan, then it's on track. And if it doesn't, then the sequester kicks in and the supercommittee will have failed.
It's unknown if any plan drawn-up by the supercommittee could garner the necessary votes to pass the House AND Senate. The law Congress passed in August creating the supercommittee made this as easy as possible to move something through. Only simple majorities are needed in both bodies for passage. By doing this, the law effectively sidelined the Senate's touchstone: the filibuster. Sixty votes can typically thwart any filibuster or delay in the Senate. But under these circumstances, a mere 51 will suffice.
Still, it's about the votes. And without any product from the supercommittee, no one has any sense of what either body is capable of passing. Democrats are pushing for revenue increases and guarding entitlement programs like Medicare. Republicans are firm in their opposition to tax hikes. Both parties are concerned that automatic spending cuts could imperil the military. And with the sides dug in so deeply, this creates a monstrous operational impediment to finding those magical votes to pass anything right now.
The supercommittee and debt ceiling law dictates that any figure short of $1.2 trillion in spending reductions faces the sequester. For the sake of argument, let's presume the supercommittee concocts a plan with $800 billion in cuts, making it $400 billion short of the goal. Around $70 billion of the $400 billion shortfall is statutorily dedicated to debt service. The remainder is split in half and targeted for cuts. The law mandates that they split equally the remainder of the pie (around $330 billion) for cuts. $165 billion comes from the government at-large. The other $165 comes out of the Pentagon's account.
Few want to cut defense at this rate, or any other rate. And say the House and Senate can't find the votes to cut to approve this hypothetical (or any other plan)? The sequester kicks in at the $1.2 trillion level. Under this formula, around $200 billion goes to servicing the debt. The rest of the pie is around a $1 trillion. So $500 billion is lopped off from general government spending and the Pentagon bleeds a staggering $500 billion.
This is what makes this "trigger" so brilliant and vexing all at the same time. Everyone realizes the cuts will be painful. It's just a question of how much pain they can tolerate. And complete failure makes the entire enterprise excruciating.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) frequently reminds reporters he's the second-oldest of 12 children and that his Dad owned a bar. So here Boehner finds himself in the middle of the biggest family feud/barroom brawl imaginable. Boehner appears unwilling to intervene to change the terms of the agreement. You can almost imagine him admonishing one of his younger siblings, you wanted to do it this way. Now finish the job.
"I didn't agree to get this (supercommittee) up without any idea that it wouldn't succeed," said Boehner last week. "It has to pass. I think it's important for Congress to respect the work of the (super)committee."
That may be Boehner's goal. But it's ultimately about getting the votes.
Already, there's a movement afoot to curb the sequestration for the military.
"I think that's possible," said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) as he emerged from a session with fellow supercommittee Republicans Monday afternoon. "There would be bipartisan interest in that."
Earlier in the day, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the top Republican on that panel, fretted about what a sequester would mean for the military. The duo sprinkled their comments with more antiquities than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
"Sequestration is....a Sword of Damocles over everyone's head," said Levin.
McCain argued that lawmakers should search for an alternative to protect the military.
"Sequestration is not engraved on golden tablets. It is a notional aspiration," said McCain. "Those of us - I think have sufficient support to prevent those cuts from being enacted, because of the impact on national security."
For his part, Levin was more guarded in his remarks than McCain about the possibility of no agreement.
"I don't want to take the pressure off to reach a deal by talking about avoiding, eliminating effects of sequestration if there's no deal," said Levin.
And herein lies the problem.
Several Congressional sources have started wondering aloud what it might take to cobble together the votes. In other words, once the supercommittee puts something on the table, lawmakers might be willing to approve a given package, IF they can agree on a way to "turn off" the defense sequester. Their votes for the actual supercommittee product could be conditional on the Congressional leadership finding a way to terminate the sequester for the Pentagon.
Such a roadmap is fraught with peril. First, Boehner is reluctant to truncate the law Congress approved in August: either they find the cuts or the sequester kicks in. Next, a contingency bill would only need a simple majority to pass the House. But unlike the special ground rules for the supercommittee, that legislation would be subject to a Senate filibuster and there could be trouble locating 60 votes to end debate.
Then there are the credit ratings agencies. If the supercommittee fails, the ratings agencies may downgrade America's credit worthiness. But several senior aides assert that's a wrongheaded approach. One pointed out that regardless of how Congress goes about it, the law requires $1.2 trillion in cuts, an unprecedented level. If the ratings agencies downgraded the U.S. in those circumstances, they would be judging the "way" Congress went about it.
"This isn't the Olympics where you get style points for how you do it," said one aide. "My grandparents fought for 50 years, but they held their marriage together."
One source noted that if the ratings agencies elects to downgrade the federal government, they ignore the $1.2 trillion spending cut.
The credit ratings agencies are watching the to see if Congress can get a deal. But what's worse? No deal, which results in an automatic downgrade or a partial deal which still results in a downgrade? What about an intermediate deal which then saves the Pentagon? It's widely thought that no one knows how the ratings agencies would adjudicate that move.
"We'll probably know by the end of the week if the supercommittee comes up with something," predicted McCain.
What's unknown is if they can find the votes to muscle that "something" through the House and Senate.
And the only certainty: Congress is on track to slash $1.2 trillion.