The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, as the supercommittee is known formally, held a first meeting last week that consisted entirely of speech-making by the panel members. The panel followed that triumph by holding a hearing Tuesday morning devoted in large part to trading blame for the deficit.

As the committee learned Tuesday in testimony from Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf, they must have legislation in hand by the beginning of November to meet their own late-November deadline. Yet if Tuesday’s hearing was any indication, they can’t agree on the nature of the problem.

“The fundamental question,” Elmendorf lectured the blame-crazed lawmakers, “is not how we got here but where you want the country to go.”

The chief congressional bean counter, highly regarded by both sides as a neutral referee, laid out the choices: If you want to keep entitlement programs the way they are, you’re going to need big tax increases and sharp cuts to everything else government does. If you want to keep taxes where they are, you’re going to need severe cuts to entitlement programs as well as to everything else.

There are serious legislators on the panel — Democratic Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Max Baucus (Mont.), and Republican Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.) — but there are also enough hardened partisans to encourage a suspicion that the committee has been set up to fail. That probably means committee members will agree on little more than cuts to discretionary spending programs, such as the Pentagon, homeland security, veterans benefits, food safety and air-traffic control.

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