RPT-US lawmakers press for debt deal as deadline nears

Mon Nov 14, 2011 7:00am EST

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* Committee has nine days left to strike a deal

* Show of unity planned on steps of U.S. Capitol

* Lawmakers have personal stake in committee's success

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers aim to present a dramatic show of support this week for a congressional "super committee" racing against the clock to agree on a deficit-cutting plan.

The lawmakers, worried about the political and economic consequences of failure, are crossing party lines and eschewing the trench warfare that has marred debate over how to cut America's deficit, now topping more than $1 trillion a year.

In a symbolic show of unity that is rare in the polarized world of modern Washington politics, as many as 150 members of Congress are expected to stand together on the Capitol steps on Tuesday to demonstrate solidarity with the committee.

"There's been plenty of speculation that the super committee will fail. We'll show we want them to succeed," a senior Republican aide told Reuters.

The nearly 150 lawmakers represent about half the Democratic-controlled 100-member Senate and roughly a quarter of the 435-member Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

The unusual event on the Capitol steps is likely to attract widespread media attention. But it is unclear what impact it will have on the committee members who are struggling behind closed doors to overcome deep ideological differences over taxes hikes and cuts to government-run healthcare and retirement programs.

The super committee faces a Nov. 23 deadline, now just nine days away, to reach a deal to cut U.S. deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

Success would send a strong signal to credit ratings agencies and global investors that the United States is taking credible steps to lighten its debt burden. Failure would trigger automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion that would hit defense and domestic spending.

But the panel has shown few signs of progress. Negotiations are complicated by the 2012 election campaign, in which both parties want to convince voters they will be the best stewards of an economy still trying to recover from a deep recession.

Thirty-three Senate seats and all House seats are up for election.

Republican committee member Senator Patrick Toomey told "Fox News Sunday" the committee was aware the "clock is running out," but he was still hopeful of a deal. A Democratic member, Representative James Clyburn, said a deal was still possible, but he was not as confident as he was 10 days ago.

Standard and Poor's downgraded the country's AAA credit rating in August, largely because it viewed the differences between the two parties as "extraordinarily difficult to bridge."

KEEPING UP THE PRESSURE

Two months after the super committee began talks, Republican opposition to tax hikes and Democratic resistance to big cuts to popular social programs remain key hurdles.

Tuesday's event on Capitol Hill is aimed at pressing committee members to compromise.

"We want to encourage, nudge, cajole the committee to go big," a Democratic aide said. The pressure group wants the committee to agree on a deficit-reduction deal of at least $3 trillion, far more than its mandated target.

"We'll show there's support in the House and Senate, among Democrats and Republicans, for a deal," the aide said.

The lawmakers pushing for the super committee to strike a deal say it is crucial to the country's fiscal health, but politicians also have a personal stake in its success.

With Congress' approval rating already at a record-low 9 percent, voters are likely to view the committee's failure as another example of Washington's inability to govern. That could hurt both parties in 2012.

"If they don't get something done, it's going to be bad for incumbents," said John Feehery, a former Republican aide turned political analyst.

Those set to come together on the Capitol steps include many, if not all, of the 103 House members (61 Democrats and 42 Republicans) and 45 senators (23 Republicans and 22 Democrats) who recently wrote letters to the super committee urging budget savings of at least $3 trillion.

Ethan Siegal of The Washington Exchange, which tracks Washington for investors, is skeptical that the bipartisan initiatives will translate into super committee action.

"I'm not sure that the bipartisan pressure has enough political juice to make it happen," he said.

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