* Some signs of camaraderie, but divide remains
* Coffee and treats to fuel talks
* No assigned seating
By Thomas Ferraro and Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON, Nov 7 Deep beneath the U.S. Capitol
is a red-carpeted room that recently reverberated to the sound
of Democrats and Republicans singing together, and then to
their angry exchanges over how to fix the U.S. budget.
Welcome to Congress's "super committee" room.
This is where a dozen lawmakers lock themselves away to try
to strike a deal that, if reached, could prove a turning point
in one of the United States' biggest challenges: shrinking its
huge budget deficits and containing its soaring debt burden.
On a dozen occasions so far since early September, the
committee's six senators and six members of the House of
Representatives pulled up a dozen yellow chairs to four wooden
tables pushed into a square and commenced haggling over
spending and taxes.
There is no assigned seating in the bare 30-by-30 foot
(9-by-9 metres) Room 200 in the Capitol's visitors' center, two
Instead the six Republicans and six Democrats routinely
change places as they try new ways to find a deal by Nov. 23 to
cut the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
The swings between comity and acrimony do not yet signal
whether a deal can be done by the deadline.
Failure could stoke fears among investors around the world
that the U.S. political system is incapable of coming to grips
with the country's huge debt.
All of this is happening at a time when Congress's approval
rating among Americans has sunk to an all-time low of less than
10 percent, largely because of partisan gridlock.
"At this point, the most serious adult conversations going
in Congress are at the super committee," a senior aide said.
"Members are driven by a sense that this is a very
precarious time in U.S. history that beckons a solution," the
aide said. "But at the same time, members wrestle with
political loyalties that they can't divorce themselves from."
Democrats are pushing to cut the deficit by up to $3
trillion over 10 years, much higher than the super committee's
target, with a mix of spending cuts and new tax revenues. But
Republicans deeply oppose raising taxes, warning of job losses
and damage to an already fragile economic recovery.
Across the divide, friendships have blossomed in Room 200.
Democratic Senator John Kerry and Republican Senator Rob
Portman have started biking together in the morning.
Kerry has emerged as a leader of an informal, bipartisan
group of six lawmakers within the super committee, the biggest
of a number of sub-groups seeking to narrow differences.
He recently invited a few of his group of six, including
Portman, to his home for dinner, congressional aides say.
Senator Patty Murray, the panel's Democratic co-chair, and
Jeb Hensarling, the committee's Republican co-chair, have a
solid working relationship, according to aides who asked not to
be identified because of the panel's secrecy policy.
COOL OFF, AND MOVE ON
Yet some opposing positions have seemed to harden, like
those between Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who like other
Democrats wants all budget options on the table, and Republican
Senator Jon Kyl, who fiercely opposes any new defense cuts.
Tensions rose on Oct. 25 when the Democrats unveiled their
$3 trillion plan. As Baucus made the pitch, Republicans on the
panel, led by Kyl, interrupted with blunt objections. "We
haven't signed off on any revenues, and we certainly aren't
doing anything that high," an aide quoted Kyl as saying.
At that point, as is the case whenever the talks get tough,
all staff were ordered out, leaving only committee members to
cool off and try to move on.
The veil of silence holds outside the room, too. Reporters
stalking the super committee members have largely come up
empty-handed. Many of the lawmakers emerge from the talks
holding up their hands to signal they have nothing to say.
To fuel the debates, some of which have lasted much of the
day, a pair of metal coffee makers and a red plastic container
of Folgers Classic Roast sit atop a small table in a corner of
"Coffee is the drink of choice, more so than soda or
bottled water. It helps keep them going," an aide said.
On the other side of the room, a tray is laden with nibbles
including cookies, raisins, trail mix, nuts and Doritos.
Generally members don't munch much during their sessions,
though on one day Kerry treated colleagues to cupcakes. Another
time, Kyl brought sandwiches from a popular lunch chain.
In October, members set aside their differences for long
enough to sing "Happy Birthday" to the panel's Democratic
Aides say talks have generally been cordial, at least in
part because it features none of the lawmakers who are
considered to be Congress's leading hot-heads.
Republican Senator Pat Toomey has a reputation for being
mild mannered. He is a favorite of the conservative Tea Party
movement which is pushing hard for spending cuts and no tax
increases. But Toomey has signaled that he wants a deal.
Kerry, the Democratic Party's failed 2004 presidential
nominee, has emerged as of the panel's most talkative members,
at times irritating some, but drawing respect from both sides
for his efforts.
Portman, a budget director in the administration of
Republican President George W. Bush, has been among the chief
advocates for a reform of America's complex, loophole-riddled
tax system that could generate more revenue without necessarily
raising tax rates.
Some members of the six-strong sub-group led by Kerry
recently had dinner in a Chinese restaurant on Capitol Hill,
shortly after Republicans privately presented their $2.2
trillion proposal based mainly on cuts to social programs.
Committee Democrats rejected the Republican idea.
If the committee fails to reach a deal before its deadline,
$1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts are scheduled to kick
in from 2013, although lawmakers could yet undo them. Such cuts
could trigger an outcry as they would bite into each party's
sacred cows: defense spending for Republicans and social
welfare programs for Democrats.
Less than three weeks before the deadline, few who follow
the discussions venture to guess the prospects for success.
"We aren't going to know if we're going to get a deal until
seven days or less before the deadline," said a senior aide.
"That's when things will get really serious."