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The Death of the Supercommittee?

It's tradition to hold state funerals in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

In recent years, Presidents Reagan and Ford laid in state there. So have Presidents Kennedy and Lincoln. Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover received a Rotunda service.

At these somber affairs, the casket is arranged in the center of the Rotunda on a wooden platform and draped with an American flag. An honor guard, representing each of the military services, stands at attention, positioned at each corner of the casket. Crowds silently file in around the Rotunda's perimeter to pay their respects.

These are stark, somber affairs.

Congress is readying itself for a big funeral right now. And if you listen closely, you can almost detect the solemn, deliberate notes of Chopin's "Funeral March" echoing through the marble corridors.

But on Sunday night, no one prepared the Capitol Rotunda for a requiem.

With the exception of two velvet rope lines to guide tourists through the center of the gigantic, spherical room, the Rotunda stood empty. The statuary of Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. which ring the Rotunda, stared toward the empty center, where the casket usually rests.

That didn't inhibit a cloak of gloom from swallowing up Capitol Hill Sunday.

Congress was prepping for a funeral of a different sort. This was not a funeral where lawmakers would pay homage to the deceased in the Rotunda. In fact, Members of Congress weren't ready to accept the demise.

Yet.

After all, lawmakers were wrestling with how to euthanize the supercommittee charged with finding $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. The supercommittee's members struggled for three months to forge an agreement. And with a November 23 deadline fast approaching, it was apparent the supercommittee would soon succumb to failure.

It was just a question of when supercommittee members would begin the interment. No one wanted to give up the ghost until the last, possible moment.

What was thought to be true on Friday was luminous late Sunday afternoon: the supercommittee was on the verge of failure. And it was now up to the co-chairs of the supercommittee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), to determine a way to make the death as painless as possible.

Supercommittee talks veered wildly off the tracks Friday after both sides rejected offers from the other side. Individual meetings between supercommittee members slowed. It became clear that supercommittee members were resigned to the panel's fate.

"Hospice has entered the house. It's just a question of whether it's done tonight or tomorrow or Sunday," said a senior Congressional source familiar with the supercommittee negotiations. "The family has gathered. The end is near."

The problem is that the law which created the supercommittee granted the panel until Wednesday night to strike a bargain. But many on Capitol Hill noted that the true deadline was Sunday night. Sunday would be the last possible point where the supercommittee could ask the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to evaluate their proposals to determine a price tag. If the CBO burned the midnight oil and presented the supercommittee with a set of figures Monday, it could call a "hearing" to write the final version of the bill Wednesday. But it was painfully clear several days ago that was unlikely to happen. The ideological chasms were too wide. But because time remained on the clock, no one was willing to pull the plug, for fear the other side would blame the other for giving up too soon.

And so the weekend ensued with the supercommittee suffering an interminable, morbid death.

"I'm available to talk if they're willing to put forward anything reasonable," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Friday. "If they're not willing to put forward anything reasonable, then there's no point in talking."

There was a moment on Friday where people thought the dilemma might help the supercommittee members find common ground. After all, that's what Congress usually does. The time grows short and the sides work feverishly to make a deal.

"As you get toward the midnight hour, tensions certainly go up," said supercommittee member Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

"This is when things get done," added supercommittee member Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a veteran of many last-minute negotiating scrambles.

It's true. Final bargaining meetings intensify the resolve of mediators and often yield results. Congressional leaders structured the supercommittee so that the penalty for failure would be so onerous that no one would want to fall short. If the supercommittee foundered and was unable to strike a pact, $1.2 trillion in cuts would automatically kick in. This was through a Congressional accounting mechanism known as a "sequester." A sequester is where the money is quarantined from lawmakers designating it from spending.

Everyone thought that threat would be enough to drive the sides together, especially since about half of the cuts could come from the Pentagon.

"I'm not giving up my weekend so we can have a sequester," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) Friday before a meeting of supercommittee Democrats.

But an hour later, the meeting broke. Patty Murray and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) exited, their faces looking ashen. Still, no one ended the charade.

Just yet.

Despite a seeming fait accompli, the supercommittee breathed for yet another day.

When the government stood on the brink of a shutdown or a default earlier this year, there was a flurry of activity around Congressional leadership offices. Lawmakers and aides flitted about, shuttling paper and proposals back and forth in an effort to stave off pending disaster.

But that wasn't the case this weekend as few staff and fewer supercommittee members appeared to darken the door of the Capitol complex. Chris Van Hollen was reported to have attended the Chevy Chase-Bethesda high school soccer game in suburban Washington on Saturday afternoon. This prompted various journalists to crack jokes about the supercommittee moving into "stoppage time" or the possibility of the negotiations to be decided in a shootout.

And where's Ian Darke when you need him?

But the field that hosted the soccer match may have seen a lot more action than the Capitol Hill pitch.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) appears to be the only supercommittee member who made it to the Capitol on Saturday. Kyl toiled in his office for most of the day and emerged around dusk with grim news.

"Nobody wants to quit until the stroke of midnight," Kyl said, indicating that the supercommittee was about to produce what he termed a "goose egg."

And despite no movement, the supercommittee survived for yet another day.

It was soon clear why no one terminated the supercommittee on Saturday. Killing it off Saturday, let alone Friday, would rob both sides of the chance to spin the reasons for failure on the Sunday morning talk shows. Hensarling and Becerra appeared on Fox News Sunday. Murray was a guest on CNN. Kerry and Kyl fielded questions on NBC's Meet the Press. Supercommittee member and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) swung by CBS' Face the Nation.

"I think we are deep in the fourth quarter, but there's time on the clock," Becerra said on Fox. "We are trying everything possible to get there."

"Nobody wants to give up hope. Reality, to some extent, is starting to overtake hope," said Hensarling. "Talks have taken place over the weekend and they will continue to take place."

But if they took place, they certainly didn't unfold in person at the Capitol. Only a few reporters observed Hensarling on Capitol Hill after the Sunday shows. A phalanx of TV crews huddled in a desolate hallway outside the House Republican Conference office suite where Hensarling has convened many GOP supercommittee meetings. But no one but a few aides strolled by.

It quickly became apparent that the sides were trying to find a way to end the supercommittee process.

"It's a topic under discussion," said one senior Congressional source Sunday afternoon.

Call it death with dignity.

By late Sunday, the Capitol was virtually empty, except for the usual compliment of police officers and maintenance staff. That's when word came that Murray and Hensarling might hold a press conference.

Would this be the death knell for the supercommittee? Or would it be a last-ditch appeal by the supercommittee co-chairs to tell the public they still hadn't given up, despite the hour.

Almost as quickly as the rumor of a potential press conference filtered through came word there would be no announcement Sunday night.

It appeared that the body would be sent to the morgue Monday and not a day earlier.

But how would Hensarling and Murray end it?

With a joint news conference? With an actual hearing where both sides reject proposals by the other? How about a simple, terse statement indicating that the supercommittee would not report out a bill, officially triggering the sequester?

No one knew. Rumors flew that the supercommittee duo might kill it off early Monday morning. Another source suggested they would wait for the markets to close Monday afternoon.

And so, the supercommittee lived.

In 1992, DC Comics published a controversial set of stories titled "The Death of Superman." In comic, the Man of Steel finally meets his match engaging in an epic battle in the canyons of Metropolis with a malevolent creature called "Doomsday." Both fight to the death. And incredibly, Superman perishes.

Since his creation in the late-1930s, any avid comic book fan presumed that Superman would falter because of exposure to Kryptonite, a toxic green ore from his native planet of Krypton.

Kryptonite has always been Superman's Achilles' heel and always will be.

Unlike the "Death of Superman" saga, a potential supercommittee failure won't be attributed to some new, demonic creature named "Doomsday." Failure will come because the supercommittee encountered the same radioactive substance everyone fears: political Kryptonite.

What is political Kryptonite? Partisanship and intransigence which has paralyzed Capitol Hill during most of this Congress.

Lawmakers probably won't hold a state funeral in the Capitol Rotunda to bury the supercommittee in the next few days. But at this stage, they are planning a funeral, nonetheless.

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