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Supercommittee failure to reach agreement could lead to deeper transportation cuts

The so-called deficit supercommittee, a bipartisan group of 12 lawmakers tasked with agreeing to $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, was supposed to unveil its recommendations this week for an up-or-down vote in Congress.

But the group, established in a down-to-the-wire debt ceiling deal between President Obama and Congressional Republicans this past summer, looks like it will have nothing to offer. The divide between the two parties, particularly over high-end tax rates, appears irreconcilable.

But the consequences for failure go beyond just another black eye for an unpopular Congress. When the supercommittee was created, it came with a “trigger” of automatic cuts if members failed to come to an agreement. A portion of that $1.2 trillion trigger will target defense and Medicare reimbursements, but a significant chunk encompasses yet-to-be identified discretionary spending.

That means the budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which just emerged from a tough battle over 2012 funding levels, is back on the chopping block.

Last week, the House and Senate passed and President Obama signed a “minibus” budget for 2012 that largely kept funding for transit, Amtrak and TIGER grants intact, while zeroing out high-speed rail. Many of these same programs would likely be subject to further cuts under a trigger scenario, though the new cuts would not materialize until the 2013 calendar year.

The six Republicans and six Democrats on the supercommittee — three of each party from the House and Senate, respectively — technically have until Wednesday to make recommendations, but in order for Congress to have a chance to vote and meet disclosure terms, they needed to send their proposal to the Congressional Budget Office Monday evening for scoring.

That deadline has come and gone.

Under a failure scenario, it would fall to members of the House and Senate appropriations committees to draft specific cuts, likely a contentious outcome given split party control. There is also the possibility that discretionary spending like USDOT programs could take an even larger hit if members follow through with plans to reverse the trigger-outlined cuts to defense, a politically-sensitive area for Republicans and Democrats alike. (President Obama has signaled his intent to veto any attempts to undo the automatically-triggered cuts that were part of the committee’s creation unless equivalent savings are identified).

Members could also vote to eliminate the trigger all-together, but that seems less likely given that House Republicans have emphasized spending cuts since taking the majority this year.