WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Members of a Congress deficit-reduction committee considered scaling back their efforts on Thursday amid a Republican split over taxes and mounting doubts of reaching a deal by next week's deadline.
The 12-member "super committee" has until midnight on Wednesday, the day before the Thanksgiving holiday, to reach a deal to cut deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
"I feel we're caught in a tailspin," said a senior aide familiar with stalled talks.
Voicing the sentiment of many on Capitol Hill, another aide said: "It doesn't look particularly promising. But this is a place that works deadline to deadline. We shall see."
If the super committee is unable to come up with a deficit-reduction plan, automatic spending cuts would kick in across federal agencies, beginning in January 2013, two months after next year's election.
The prospect of automatic spending cuts was on the mind of Republican Senator Patrick Toomey, a super committee member.
Interviewed on CNBC, Toomey said Republicans could wage a "very concerted effort to reconfigure" the reductions.
Republicans likely would try to spare military programs from at least some of the cuts. But a week ago, President Barack Obama warned against turning off any of the automatic cuts that would be triggered if the super committee fails.
Failure to get a deal would likely anger voters who have been rattled by budget fights this year that brought the government to the edge of a shutdown and the brink of default.
Congress's approval rating stands at record low levels, and lawmakers are eager to prove that they are capable of governing as they head into the 2012 election season.
At the same time, any deal is likely to challenge orthodoxies on the left and the right.
Democrats have campaigned for decades on a promise to protect health and pension benefits, while nearly every Republican in Congress has vowed to oppose tax increases.
With so much distance between themselves on taxes and spending cuts, the full "super committee" hasn't met in weeks.
POSSIBLE PLAN B
But panel members have held a number of smaller talks among themselves and with party leaders.
A senior aide said some committee members were meeting just to discuss whether a broad deal is possible at this late hour.
If they conclude that it is not, talks may enter a new phase - one that takes taxes and benefit programs off the negotiating table and puts together a much smaller package containing measures both sides easily can agree upon.
These could include moves such as more aggressive government sales of the right to use radio and television frequencies and cutting federal pensions and some agriculture subsidies.[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]
The goal would be to limit the severity of automatic spending cuts that would begin in 2013, with half hitting domestic programs and the other half hitting defense spending. If the panel comes up with a plan that does not reach $1.2 trillion, the automatic cuts would kick in for the remaining amount.
Underscoring the difficulties ahead for the super committee, 72 members of the Republicans' conservative wing sent a letter to the 12-member panel stating that they would oppose any tax hike to help close budget gaps that have topped $1 trillion in each of the past three years.
"Increasing taxes on Americans would destroy jobs, erase all hope of an economic recovery, and simply serve to feed out-of-control spending in Washington," the Republican lawmakers wrote.
Republicans on the panel have floated a plan that would raise about $300 billion in taxes over 10 years, in a softening of the firm anti-tax stance they have taken in other budget battles this year.
Polls show most Americans do not expect the panel to get a deal, and that more would blame Republicans, whose party has consistently shown resistance to tax hikes.
Democrats say they will not back a plan that consists of spending cuts alone, and their latest proposal would raise the government's 10-year tax haul by about $400 billion.