"They have an extraordinary time frame to do this," says Gearan, who worries that major changes will be made without full public hearings. "The rush to judgment is very troubling."
Finding compromise has become increasingly difficult as the nation and Congress have become more polarized, says Frenzel. "Their policies have almost become theologies."
The public, meanwhile, has watched in dismay as Washington can't balance its own checkbook.
"The public says we are overspending," Frenzel says. "But [they also say] don't cut my stuff. And don't raise my taxes."
In order to compromise, both parties must decide they are better off solving the debt problem than using the issue against the other side in next year's presidential and congressional elections.
"The 2012 election has been hovering over this thing. That spotlight only gets more intense as you get into September and October of this year," says DeHaven.
Will market chaos prompt compromise?
The financial markets also hover. Ratings downgrades, like the one from Standard & Poor's, generally lead to more expensive interest costs for the government but also for consumers who borrow for homes, cars and credit card spending.
Frenzel says the markets want to see more than just the cuts now being considered. The nation needs to reduce spending by $4 trillion to $5 trillion to really get the size of the debt down in proportion to the economy, he says.
"I think Congress has really got to get serious. They've got to give up things they don't want to give up," Frenzel says.
The first round of spending cuts already passed by Congress only set the total saved, not which particular programs will get a haircut. But DeHaven says he doesn't expect much impact. It's supposed to cut $900 billion over 10 years, and much of it comes later in that time frame. Next year, $25 billion less will be spent than would have, he says. "We're not talking about a whole heck of a lot of money in the vast scheme of things."
But Paul Van de Water, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, disagrees. "It's going to eat into a lot of important federal functions," he says, rattling off examples like staffing levels at Social Security offices, health research into diseases, repairing highways and keeping the food supply safe.
But budget hawks worry that Congress won't stick to the promises it has made to cut spending. Congress can't force future lawmakers not to repeal the cuts.