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Worry Shrouds Capitol Over Supercommittee

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) have served in Congress long enough to know when things work on Capitol Hill.

And they certainly know when they don't.

Both are the most-senior members of their respective bodies. First-elected in 1955, Dingell's the longest-serving House member in Congressional history. Hawaii's had Inouye as either a Congressman or a senator since the state joined the union in 1959.

On Thursday night, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society bestowed its "Freedom" award on Dingell and Inouye during a reception in Statuary Hall. And when it came time for the Michigan Democrat to speak, Dingell didn't hold back on the state of affairs on Capitol Hill these days.

"Congress is at a great juncture," noted the 85-year-old Dingell.

Indeed, Congress finds itself at this juncture as it waits for the bipartisan supercommittee in charge of deficit reduction to cut a deal by next week and curb $1.2 trillion in spending.

If the supercommittee falters and automatic cuts begin instead, people will believe Congress has failed once again.

During his remarks, Dingell never once mentioned the supercommittee and its travails. But everyone knew exactly what Dingell was talking about.

"It hurts me at times that we cannot make this place work," lamented Dingell.

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For weeks, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has preached the "three B's" as essential ingredients for the supercommittee's final package. Pelosi's said the deal must be "big, bold and balanced." But Pelosi dialed that back at her weekly press conference on Thursday.

"I don't know if it can be as big and bold as I'd like. But I hope it can be balanced," Pelosi said.

Reporters then pressed Pelosi if she was resigned to the supercommittee coming up short.

"I'm still optimistic," Pelosi replied. "But I'm also realistic."

A small, bipartisan group of supercommittee members huddled for two-and-a-half hours on the Senate side of the Capitol Thursday night. An aide said the session yielded no progress. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) emerged, looking frazzled and despondent.

"We'll keep working," Kerry promised. "I'll talk and work ‘til the last dog dies."

Under the rules of the supercommittee, "the last dog" is scheduled to die next Wednesday night, just before Thanksgiving. But everyone knows the real deadline for the supercommittee is Monday. Its internal rules require a 48 hour notice before the full committee can convene to "markup" to write the final version of the measure. That means supercommittee members and staff will shuttle back and forth this weekend in meetings, hoping for a last-ditch effort to salvage the stalled process.

The weekend sessions are expected to be surreal. Neither the House nor Senate are scheduled to be in. The supercommittee is structured in such a way that top Congressional leaders like House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) can't directly tweak proposals in an effort to bridge the impasse. It's all up to the supercommittee. And what does that mean? Lots of disparate talks and negotiating sessions spread out in hideaway offices and hovels all over the Capitol this weekend.

For starters, the sides can't even agree on what the other side has placed on the table and whose turn it is to move.

Democrats claim they put forth a new proposal a couple of days ago. But on Wednesday night, Mike Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, argued that the latest offer "was a step backwards because it would lock in the largest tax hike in history."

Republicans repeatedly said they waited for the Democrats' counteroffer.

"There's been exactly one proposal from the (super)committee," said Boehner Thursday. "It's very clear to me there has never been a Democrat plan. Not one."

But two hours later, supercommittee co-chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) asserted her side had.

"We've met their offer on revenue," Murray said.

Thirty minutes later, the supercommittee's other co-chair, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), joined the parliamentary Ping-Pong.

"I am unaware of any offer or any idea from any Democrat that did not include a minimum of a trillion dollar tax increase," said Hensarling.

This is why it could be an interesting weekend. And at least a few comments in the hallway by Murray and Hensarling might offer a clue as to how poorly the discussions are going. Since its inception, most supercommittee members have been mum about the state of the talks. Reporters' questions were often met with the rejoinder that they weren't going to negotiate through the press. With the discussions in such a wretched state, it's now interesting that Murray and Hensarling are willing to negotiate through the press....just a bit. If nothing else, it could help achieve the highest ground possible if the conversations devolve and it becomes a public relations war over who to blame for fouling up the talks.

One of the sides has already had meetings about possibly staging political theatrics this weekend. One option entails setting up a hearing room with spaces for all 12 supercommittee members. Name placards would denote each chair. Notebooks and pencils would be positioned at each desk alongside a glass of water garnished with ice chips. Beads of sweat would form on the rim of the glass, hinting at the absence of one side.

Of course to the TV cameras, only one party would appear to be negotiating. And the visual message is that those not there are dialect in their duties.

"The problem we've had all year is getting to ‘yes,'" complained Boehner at his weekly session with the press.

Under conventional circumstances, getting to "yes" is a lot easier than under the aegis of the supercommittee. On other high-profile issues, Congressional leaders can traditionally step in to tweak a piece of legislation or twist arms to get rank-and-file members to support a measure. But at this stage of the game, it's completely up to the supercommittee. Leaders can be supportive. But they can't salvage the day.

"The leaders invented this and I think the leaders have some responsibility to get this to succeed," said Boehner.

Now scribes are starting to post hypotheticals.

What if they can't reach an agreement by Monday night? What if the Congressional Budget Office (known in Washington shorthand as the CBO, the official scorekeeper of Congress) isn't able to run the numbers of a proposal on time?

"I don't think it would be a problem if (CBO Director Doug) Elmendorf slipped us a cocktail napkin with all of the numbers checking out on Tuesday morning," said one senior aide familiar with the discussions.

That indicates the supercommittee is willing to bend the rules. But just a bit. And that doesn't get them any closer to a pact.

"We're trying to catch lightning in a bottle," said an aide. "With every second that ticks off, this gets harder to do."

Thursday was John Boehner's 62nd birthday. And reporters peppered him for details about his birthday celebration.

"(House Majority Whip) Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) got me a Rowenta iron," said Boehner. "I'm told it's the best iron you can get."

Known for his meticulous grooming habits, Boehner likes to iron his clothes. McCarthy joked that the iron may help Boehner "iron out the country's problems."

The iron may come in handy on Arrow shirts. But not so much with the supercommittee.

When a reporter wished Boehner a happy birthday, the Speaker sighed and responded "It's better than the alternative."

If the supercommittee stumbles, $1.2 trillion is automatically slashed. Half of that money comes out of the Pentagon's budget. And no one wants an automatic cut, known as sequester.

That's why people want the supercommittee to succeed.

This supercommittee process is akin to Boehner's 62nd birthday. Like Boehner, they may not like some of the budget cuts the supercommittee comes up with.

But it beats the alternative.

- FOX's Trish Turner contributed to this report.