When the super committee on deficit reduction begins meeting early next month, the expectations for the bipartisan group of lawmakers to succeed will be immense as the country's stagnant economy limps through another partisan battle on Capitol Hill.
But for an ostensibly stubborn, divided Congress that has faced legislative gridlock most of the year, the trillion-dollar question is whether the bipartisan team will reach a consensus to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion before the Nov. 23 deadline, or will the committee work right up to the cut-off date only to produce another report that fails to address the country's most pressing challenges on spending.
Since House Speaker John Boehner seized the gavel Jan. 5, the president has signed just 29 acts of Congress into law -- including a host of non-landmark items like four temporary FAA reauthorizations, and a slew of administrative measures such as naming federal buildings and extending the term of the FBI director -- hardly legislative victories for the president to boast about on the campaign trail.
So far this year, political showdowns on the most significant measures the president has signed into law -- the FY2011 continuing resolution to fund the government and the Budget Control Act to raise the debt limit -- sucked up most of the political oxygen in Washington this year. The partisan fight nearly brought down the economy before the divided Congress finally buckled on a compromise and sent a deal to the president.
It's unclear how soon the latest deficit reduction committee could sit down to begin deliberations, but sources indicate the appointees likely will not become engaged in direct negotiations until after Labor Day when Congress returns to session from summer recess.
Earlier this month the president signed another short-term FAA extension, so Congress will also have to quickly return to that issue when both Houses return to session after Labor Day, as the extension runs out once again on Sept. 16.
Republican aides concede that there's an obvious necessity to enact tax reform, but the party is still uniformly opposed to any tax increases and maintain that the super committee "is not the venue for overhauling all of the entitlements."
Today, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote in an op-ed that "the worst thing Washington can do for our economy is raise taxes" and noted the Budget Control Act "represents a step toward fiscal sanity in Washington, but only a step."
"Over the next few months, as a result of the Budget Control Act, lawmakers of both parties on the newly formed joint select committee will be in a position to make tough choices to rein in the mandatory and entitlement spending that is driving our long-term debt," the GOP leaders wrote. "We believe this work can be done without imposing job-crushing tax increases. We should be able to move forward on the areas in which we agree on the former, without tying them to areas of disagreement - such as the latter."
According to a senior GOP aide, the committee -- facing the prospect of automatic triggers to slash sacred cows near and dear to both sides of the aisle -- has a real incentive to get something done, but at the same time Republicans are working to keep expectations in check and point out that ending tax breaks for corporate jets does not even make a dent in addressing the nation's deficit crisis.
Democrats say as the super committee will engage Washington in months of debate that will show voters a clear distinction between the values of both political parties: Cutting entitlements like Medicare and Social Security versus raising taxes on multimillionaires and closing egregious tax loopholes.
"Democrats want to ensure that the Joint Committee on Deficits is also a joint committee on jobs," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told the United Steelworkers Conference in Las Vegas Monday. "We must take the discussions of how to reduce the deficit to the higher ground of America's greatness and its values. We must meet the aspirations of the American people for success and keep America number one. All our conversations about reducing the deficit must focus on how to grow an American prosperity enjoyed by all Americans."
One thing that is evident is that one of President Obama's top goals heading into the next election is to win back Democratic control of the House of Representatives. At a town hall meeting Monday night in Iowa, the president did not hide his irritation over the divided Congress and took dead aim at Tea Party-supported conservatives in the House.
"The problem is, is that we've got the kind of partisan brinksmanship that is willing to put party ahead of country, that's more interested in seeing their political opponents lose than seeing the country win," the president told the crowd in Decorah, Iowa. "I'm pretty frustrated about that."
After last November's landslide election, this Congress is perhaps the most polarized in more than a decade, with most of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats wiped out in the Tea Party's tsunami. Those moderates were not replaced by centrist conservatives, but rather by hard-line lawmakers that Democrats call "extreme," "fringe" and, by some accounts, "terrorists."
In the House, Republicans must guard their 48-seat majority, 240-192. That number could change a little as there are currently three vacant seats due to resignations in the lower body.
Beyond winning back the House majority, President Obama has another formidable challenge on his hands in keeping Democratic control of the Senate.
In order to hold the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his colleagues enjoy a 53-47 seat advantage over Republicans, Democrats have the tall task of defending 22 incumbent seats, while the GOP has just 11 seats to protect.
Those electoral dynamics, coupled with customary procrastination of the legislative branch, make the super committee's work even more daunting as lawmakers will undoubtedly resist upsetting their respective political bases heading into a pivotal presidential election cycle.
Only time will tell how the deficit debate ultimately plays out and whether lawmakers can put aside their political differences for the sake of the country.
Lawmakers heard another warning of the consequence of inaction -- despite the assurance of triggers. Although Fitch Ratings affirmed the country's AAA rating (unlike the recent S&P downgrade), the agency cranked up the pressure on the 12-member committee Tuesday, warning that if the lawmakers are unable to come together to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit the nation's credit rating "would likely result in negative rating action."