WASHINGTON-Within minutes of Monday night's formal failure of the congressional debt-reduction supercommittee, lawmakers from both parties released a flurry of obviously prewritten statements. In this race to provide the most quotable epitaph to the panel's unsurprising demise, the blame game had begun.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was first out of the gate. His statement, emailed to reporters at 4:54 p.m. Monday, faulted President Barack Obama and other Democrats for their unwillingness to make "tough decisions." It is a failure McConnell called "deeply disappointing."
"The best way to ensure that Washington doesn't waste more taxpayer money is to give less of it away to those who don't need it," McConnell's statement continued. "If Democrats were more concerned about the deficit than in making government bigger, they would embrace proposals like this, too."
Less than one minute later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada released his account. His statement blamed Tea Party extremists and millionaire lobbyists like anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. Republicans, Reid said, "never found the courage to ignore" those interest groups.
"Democrats were prepared to strike a grand bargain that would make painful cuts while asking millionaires to pay their fair share, and we put our willingness on paper," Reid continued. "But Republicans never came close to meeting us halfway."
Sen. Marco Rubio, a freshman Republican from Florida with Tea Party ties, is a newcomer to Washington's blame game. Still he summed up the panel's impasse the best: "The Super Committee was a flawed idea from the start."
Indeed, it seems [that] both parties needed the 12-member bipartisan committee to deadlock in order to advance their storylines heading into next year's key election. Both Republicans and Democrats can now go to their main backers and claim that they did not compromise.
Reid didn't mourn long for the death of the supercommittee. In his eulogy, he praised Democrats on the panel for "protecting the fundamental guarantees of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid." Republicans, he added, "relentlessly sought to end Medicare as we know it."
As it was probably destined to be from the beginning, the supercommittee has become little more than a campaign caricature.
The committee's goal of reaching $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade was announced with much fanfare at the end of summer. But in reality, the supercommittee never had a chance. What it most provided was cover for the rest of Congress while the media focused its attention on the 12 poor souls chosen to shoulder a budget deficit load that had proven to be too heavy for either Capitol Hill or the White House.
Monday's concession of defeat did not surprise many. Stock prices fell throughout the day though committee members waited until after the New York Stock Exchange closed before making the panel's collapse official.
The differences that killed the committee are not surprising to anyone who has been following Congress' yearlong struggles with debts and deficits: Democrats want more revenue and Republicans want less government.
Nevertheless, in defeat, committee members felt the need to urge lawmakers to do what they could not.
"Despite our inability to bridge the committee's significant differences, we end this process united in our belief that the nation's fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve," the panel's two co-chairs, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tex., said in a joint statement that echoed what lawmakers have been telling each other to do all year … with little results.
Any speculation of how this panel will impact the public's opinion of Congress must be tempered with the sobering fact that most polls show a congressional approval rating already in the mid to low teens. Will single digits be next?
The next challenge for any lawmaker serious about reining in federal deficits will be protecting the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts triggered by the supercommittee's failure. Those automatic cuts, which would begin in January 2013, include about $600 billion in reduced Pentagon spending.
But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that these cuts would jeopardize national security. The additional cuts, Panetta said, would lead to a "hollow force."
"It's a ship without sailors. It's a brigade without bullets. It's an air wing without enough trained pilots. It's a paper tiger," he said in comments that angered other Democrats.
In a letter to lawmakers, Panetta described the smallest U.S. ground forces since 1940 and the smallest Navy since the beginning of World War I as a result of the cuts.
Already lawmakers have vowed to fight them.
"I will not be the armed services chairman who presides over crippling our military," said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., who plans to introduce legislation soon to stop the cuts. "Our military has already contributed nearly half a trillion to deficit reduction. Those who have given us so much have nothing more to give."
Obama pledged to veto any efforts to repeal the automatic spending cuts, which also include about $500 billion in reductions to domestic spending.
"There will be no easy off ramps on this one," the president said Monday. "We need to keep the pressure up to compromise … not turn off the pressure. The only way these spending cuts will not take place is if Congress gets back to work and agrees on a balanced plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion. That's exactly what they need to do. That's the job they promised to do. And they've still got a year to figure it out."
Lawmakers do have a year to figure it out. But it is an election year, and a presidential election year at that. Those are the times that partisan differences become more calcified rather than less so.
In fact, Congress has had an entire non-election year to make significant progress in reducing the deficit. But in the end, even finding $1.2 trillion worth of agreement proved insurmountable. Meanwhile, as political will continues to falter, government debt now stands at $15 trillion-or more than 12 times larger than what the supercommittee could not cut.