Republican members of the deficit reduction supercommittee softened their take-it-or-leave-it stance on new revenue, suggesting Wednesday that they might be able to at least examine new revenues if Democrats accede to entitlement reforms.
Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the Republican co-chair of the 12-member committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill that Democrats would need to offer a new proposal to counter the GOP's offer if supercommittee deliberations are to have any hope of succeeding by next Wednesday's deadline.
"I'm not going to negotiate against myself," he said today of the Republicans' plan to put $300 billion in new tax revenue on the table. "I'm still waiting for Democrats to actually solve the problem. Put something on the table."
Hensarling had sought to walk back somewhat comments he made last night on CNBC, when he said Republicans "have gone as far as we felt we can go" in terms of its supercommittee proposals, which call for making the Bush tax cuts permanent and reforms to entitlement programs.
The supercommittee is charged with identifying $1.2 trillion in savings from the budget over the next decade. Democrats have proposed a package that would eliminate $2.3 trillion from the budget by raising $1 trillion in new revenue, cutting another trillion, and saving $300 billion in interest costs.
But Republicans argue that $1 trillion in new revenue is too much, let alone politically palatable for most of their members in Congress, who face conservative pressure to reject anything even smacking of a tax hike.
Hensarling's comment on Tuesday evening stoked the ire of Democratic members of the panel, warning that they could mean the breakdown in talks.
"If they're in the mode that's take it or leave it then that's troubling because everybody needs to continue to find a way to bridge the differences," said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democratic member of the House Budget Committee. "If there's was a take it or leave it position then that suggests they're not interested in continuing the negotiations."
Democrats argue that Republicans haven't put enough new revenue on the table to balance out the type of entitlement reforms they have demanded.
"I am still hopeful that the Republicans will see their way to bringing to us a real revenue package, that's what all of us are looking for in terms of fair and balanced," said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic co-chair of the committee.
Talks are entering a critical moment for supercommittee members. While their formal deadline is next Wednesday, Nov. 23, members in both parties agree that an agreement would need to be reached this weekend if the plan is to have any hope of being "scored," or measured for its impact on the budget, by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Members of the supercommittee have been huddling together for most of Wednesday. On Tuesday, talks extended to the leadership level, when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev) met with each other.
Optimism for supercommittee success isn't exactly riding high at the moment. A CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday found that 78 percent of Americans believe the supercommittee is somewhat or very unlikely to reach an agreement by its deadline.
Republicans sought to put Democrats on the spot to make a new offer in order to break the impasse.
"I am willing to look at any offer that actually reforms our entitlement spending and solves the problem. I'm still looking forward to that and should that come I would be more than happy to negotiate around that offer. I look forward to it," Hensarling said.
But Republican members of the supercommittee also found themselves under friendly fire when the third-ranking Senate Republican, Tennessee's Lamar Alexandar, came out in favor of new taxes as part of a supercommittee deal.
"We now have Republicans who've put revenues on the table. We have Democrats on the supercommittee who've put entitlements on the table," Alexander said at a bipartisan press conference of about 30 House and Senate members, who encouraged the supercommittee to "go big" in its talks. "Both need to put more on the table and get a result, and we're here to support them"
The statement is a break from both his party's stance on taxes and from the Republican Co-Chair, Rep. Jeb Hensarling's (R-TX), comments last night on CNBC where he said that any step higher than the $250 billion in tax increases that the GOP has already offered is "a step in the wrong direction."
If a deal is not reached, it threatens to trigger a series of automatic cuts that were included as a backstop as part of the debt ceiling agreement that lawmakers approved this summer. But some lawmakers have suggested undoing those automated cuts because of the hefty cuts to the defense budget included in that plan.
Looming on the horizon, too, is next week's Thanksgiving holiday. Reid warned Wednesday that incomplete work could threaten what has become a recent yearly tradition in Congress: holiday work.
“If we have procedural obstacles on that very important legislation, it will mean we have to work the weekend into next week,” Reid said this morning on the Senate floor, referring not just to the supercommittee's work, but a new Defense funding bill, as well. “I want to make sure everyone understands that.”