By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress' "super committee" is earning a reputation for being the "super secret committee" as radio silence envelopes the panel charged with cleaning up the country's budget mess.
Democratic and Republican members of the panel met behind closed doors for a combined 12 hours this week to discuss issues that could decide the country's long-term fiscal health.
"Productive meeting." "Healthy exchanges." "We're making progress" --
That's about as enlightening as it has gotten in interviews with the 12 unusually disciplined lawmakers who face a November 23 deadline for sealing a deal to reduce U.S. government spending by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
"Cone of silence, cone of silence," joked one super committee staffer when approached by Reuters, referring to the sound-deadening gadget in the 1960s U.S. TV spy comedy "Get Smart," which never worked properly.
Contrast that with budget negotiations earlier this year that saw powerful politicians from Vice President Joe Biden to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor talk at length with reporters about their talks, which ultimately failed to produce a deal.
When politicians clam up -- a fairly rare event in Washington -- it might mean one thing, according to lobbyists, many of whom have deluged the panel with proposals: It is an indication the talks are going well.
"If they were talking to reporters and drawing lines in the sand ... that'd be an awful sign," said one lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Committee members, in their search for potential compromises, "are actively avoiding the public partisanship and political sniping that's too common in D.C. these days."
"Let's face it, this is how negotiations that require concessions happen," said a Senate aide, who also asked not to be identified.
Before anyone plans celebrations of a massive deficit-reduction deal, one that would cheer financial markets worried about America's ballooning debt, it should be noted that there is plenty of time for super committee members to break their silence.
If the talks begin to go sour, or if a workable outline emerges, journalists are likely to win more face time with super committee members as each side tries to either shift blame for a breakdown or claim credit for success.
"A lot of work remains ahead," said one congressional aide offering a dose of realism.
In the meantime, journalists have had to settle for tedious stakeouts that mostly yield glimpses of serious-faced aides toting large binders in and out of rooms. Committee members make sure they are on their cell phones when they step out for restroom breaks to avoid shouted questions from reporters.
Republican Senator Jon Kyl, who threatened earlier this month to quit the committee if it considered further defense cuts, on Tuesday made it look as if he was about to make waves again.
Approaching a bank of television cameras after a restroom visit, Kyl said he wanted to talk about taxes -- the elephant in the negotiating room.
"The bad news," Kyl then joked, was that the super committee had settled on $1.5 trillion in tax increases. "The good news: It's all on the media."
(Editing by Todd Eastham)