WASHINGTON — Congress’ supercommittee conceded ignominious defeat Monday in its quest to conquer a government debt that stands at a staggering $15 trillion, unable to overcome deep and enduring political divisions over taxes and spending.

Stock prices plummeted at home and across debt-scarred Europe as the panel ended its brief, secretive existence without an agreement. Republicans and Democrats alike assigned blame, maneuvering for political advantage in advance of 2012 elections less than a year away.

The impasse underscored grave doubts about Washington’s political will to make tough decisions and left a cloud of uncertainty over the U.S. economy at the same time that Greece, Italy, Spain and other European countries are reeling from a spreading debt crisis and recession worries.

Lawmakers of both parties agreed that action in Congress was still required, somehow, and soon.

“Despite our inability to bridge the committee’s significant differences, we end this process united in our belief that the nation’s fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve,” the panel’s two co-chairs, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said in a somber statement.

They said it was not possible to present “any bipartisan agreement,” omitting any reference to the goal of $1.2 trillion in cuts over a decade that had been viewed as a minimum for success.

President Obama – criticized by Republicans for keeping the committee at arm’s length – said refusal by the GOP to raise taxes on the wealthy as part of a deal that also cut social programs was the main stumbling block.

“They simply will not budge from that negotiating position,” he said.

Obama pledged to veto any attempt by lawmakers to repeal a requirement for $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts that are to be triggered by the supercommittee’s failure to reach a compromise, unless Congress approves an alternative approach.

Maine U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said she is no fan of the supercommittee process or the automatic cuts, noting that she voted against the debt ceiling agreement this summer. But Pingree said trying to undo the automatic cuts will cause the public to lose more faith in an already unpopular Congress.

“It would be one more reason for the public to say Congress can’t get anything done,” Pingree said in a phone interview Monday.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said in a phone interview that the supercommittee failure is a “regrettable milestone in terms of congressional dysfunction and the inability to make major decisions.”

Snowe voted for the debt deal, but noted that she warned at the time that the automatic cuts would hit too hard at defense spending and Medicare providers.

Snowe said she continues to believe that new revenues should be part of the mix in an agreement to cut the debt, as well as overall tax reform. Congress as a whole must work in the coming months to develop a debt reduction solution, she said.

“Perhaps we can come up with a partial plan to ease or minimize the triggers that will take effect in 2013,” Snowe said. She called the months since the August debt deal and creation of the supercommittee “wasted precious time.”

Maine Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, said in a written statement that “the American people would prefer a balanced deal where both sides come together and engage in some honest give and take. While I’m disappointed this bipartisan committee appears unable to do that, it doesn’t mean that Congress can’t still act before the automatic cuts take effect in 2013.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a written statement that “with a $15 trillion national debt jeopardizing our future, the stakes are simply too high. The American people are concerned, and rightfully so, that neither Congress nor the president is addressing this debt as an urgent priority.”

The automatic cuts are designed to fall evenly on the military and domestic government programs beginning in 2013. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and lawmakers in both parties have warned that the impact on the Pentagon could be devastating.

“The half-trillion dollars in additional cuts demanded by sequester would lead to a hollow force incapable of sustaining the missions it is assigned,” Panetta said in a written statement.

In reality, though, it is unclear if any of those reductions will ever take effect, since next year’s presidential and congressional elections have the potential to alter the political landscape before then.

The brief written statement from Murray and Hensarling was immediately followed by a hail of recriminations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Republicans had “never found the courage to ignore the tea party extremists” and “never came close to meeting us halfway.”

But Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who authored a GOP offer during the talks, said, “Unfortunately, our Democratic colleagues refused to agree to any meaningful deficit reduction without $1 trillion in job-crushing tax increases.”

 

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind contributed to this report.