WASHINGTON ——For Rep. Chris Van Hollen, brokering a bipartisan deal to trim the federal deficit is about more than dodging draconian across-the-board cuts or protecting a fragile economic recovery.
It's also about proving that a bitterly divided Congress can still get something done.
The outcome will have significant implications for the economy, particularly in Maryland.
"I hope that … we're able to reach an agreement to show that we can get something done for the good of the country," Van Hollen said in an interview. "But that requires that there be a negotiating partner that's willing to enter into a balanced and fair deal."
Pessimism that the 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction will finish its work by the Nov. 23 deadline is high. Democrats on the panel insist that new taxes are needed to plug part of the nation's fiscal gap. Republicans, who won control of the House of Representatives last year on a pledge of fiscal responsibility, are resisting new taxes.
The panel was formed as part of an agreement in August to raise the nation's debt ceiling and avoid a default of U.S. obligations. Six Democrats and six Republicans have been meeting since September, nearly always behind closed doors. The secrecy has prompted widespread speculation about what, if anything, the group has accomplished so far.
"The supercommittee is still working pretty hard toward trying to get an agreement on a big deal" in excess of their $1.2 trillion mandate, said Jason Peuquet, a policy analyst with the Washington-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
But does he think it will succeed?
"It's really just anyone's guess," he said.
If the panel deadlocks or Congress does not approve its recommendations by the end of the year, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion would be triggered. About half of those reductions would hit defense spending and the other half could fall on Medicare, medical research, transportation and other government services.
The cuts would be especially painful in Maryland, home to 286,810 federal workers, a bevy of military installations and about $27 billion in annual federal contracts.
"If we were unable to reach an agreement, then you'd see these across-the-board cuts take place, which would mean significant reductions in the everyday operations of the federal government," said Van Hollen, 52. "It could have an even bigger impact on Maryland, Virginia and Washington."
But taking no action on the nation's deficit is not an option. If the cost of Medicare remains on its current trajectory and Congress extends income tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, U.S. debt would grow to 87 percent of the economy by 2020, up from 62 percent this year, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Because he represents a Montgomery County district with a high concentration of federal employees, Van Hollen has had to walk a particularly fine line in deficit-reduction talks. Some Republicans have called for cutting the federal workforce, reducing pay or trimming pensions.
Federal workers are already operating under a two-year pay freeze that began this year.
Van Hollen says he believes federal employees are "willing to do their share" as long as cuts are made in a "fair and equitable way." Though he declines to talk specifics, he promised to "fight any effort to single out federal employees."
Whatever cuts to federal workers he could ultimately support, Van Hollen appears to have the trust of public employee unions. John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called Van Hollen a "spokesperson for sanity."
Van Hollen has also earned the respect of many Republicans. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has praised Van Hollen's diplomatic style, if not his policies.