Obama Enters Debt Ceiling Talks

After heated debate, GOP leaders express confidence a deal will be reached

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In a symbolic vote that underscored the continuing impasse over how to pay the nation's bills, the House on Saturday defeated a Senate proposal to raise the debt ceiling. But shortly after the latest act in an elaborate weekend of kabuki theater on Capitol Hill, Republican congressional leaders raised hopes that the long-running dispute may be resolved before a critical Aug. 2 deadline.

Shortly after the House voted mostly along party lines, 246-173, to defeat a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to reduce the deficit by $2.4 trillion over ten years and raise the debt ceiling by the same amount, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appeared before reporters to announce that they are in talks with the White House that they believe will avert a potentially catastrophic default next week.

"We are not going to default for the first time in history," McConnell said. "That is not going to happen."

McConnell said he had spoken with both both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden Saturday afternoon. "I am confident and optimistic that we are going to get an agreement," McConnell said, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., huddled with the president at the other end of Pennsylvania avenue."We are now fully engaged."  Boehner seconded McConnell's upbeat mood. "Despite our differences, we're dealing with reasonable, responsible people who want this crisis to end as quickly as possible," the speaker said.

The tone of the two GOP leaders' remarks contrasted sharply with the debate that preceded their appearance.

On a sweltering end-of-July afternoon, temperatures were equally hot on the House floor. Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., pointed an accusatory finger at House Rules Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., who was managing the debate. “You’re standing up in disgrace, Mr. Dreier,” said Levin, as he accused House Republicans of encouraging the debt ceiling deadlock. “The action that we’re about to take here today is going to help with the process," Dreier countered, arguing that it would encourage Reid to negotiate with McConnell. “Mr. Dreier that is pernicious nonsense,” Levin replied.

The House vote was purely symbolic and followed on the heels of a Friday 59-41 Senate vote to table Boehner's competing two-step proposal to reduce the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. Democrats and the White House oppose the House plan because it does not guarantee the debt ceiling is raised through 2012 and includes what they say are unrealistic conditions for a second increase -- in particular the requirement that a balanced budget amendment be sent to the states before the second increase is approved. The support for the amendment does not exist in either chamber.

Boehner and McConnell appeared before reporters at a mid-afternoon press conference to offer reassurances that the United States will not default on its debt for the first time in history. McConnell said he has spoken with both Obama and Vice President Biden this afternoon and have begun negotiation a deal. "I am confident and optimistic we're going to get an agreement," he said. Added Boehner: "Despite our differences, we're dealing with reasonable, responsible people who want this crisis to end as quickly as possible."

Congress is working through the weekend but the action centers now in the Senate, where Reid is working to either find a workable compromise with McConnell, or appeal to enough Republican senators to give Democrats the 60 votes they need to move forward on Reid’s plan. The former is more likely than the latter, after McConnell sent a letter to Reid announced that 43 GOP senators stand in opposition to his proposal. Four Republican senators did not sign it: Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Olympia Snowe, R-Me., Susan Collins, R-Me., and Scott Brown, R-Mass.

The Senate remained in an angry stand-off as Republicans and Democrats couldn’t even agree if a filibuster existed, which bill could pass, what the president is for or when the body should vote. Beyond all this near-comic procedural histrionics, there remained some faint hope that behind-the-scenes negotiations would yield a compromise.

A vote to move forward on the Reid bill is scheduled for 1:00 a.m. Sunday morning. Depending on the outcome of the cloture vote, Reid could use his proposal as the base language to negotiate further, but if it fails GOP aides said he could be forced to use the Boehner plan as the basis to move forward.

“We must avert a default,” Reid said, “I urge my Republican friends to join me to move forward with the only compromise plan that’s left; in fact, the only option left at all to save this country from default.”

McConnell made clear Reid does not have the support to move forward on his bill as it stands. “I want to disabuse my good friend of the notion that somehow it’s going to pass,” he said. The Kentucky Republican took issue with Democratic charges that the GOP is filibustering Reid’s bill. McConnell read back to Reid his own quotes from 2007 that 60 votes were required in the Senate to move significant pieces of legislation. The big difference? Reid was in the minority back then, as McConnell is now.

Despite the gravity of the looming financial crisis and the diminishing window of time to resolve the long-running dispute, Republicans and Democrats nevertheless indulged themselves in revisiting their own tortured history of filibusters as a means of blocking or redirecting the flow of legislation.

Reid will use all available time to pressure Republicans into abandoning their filibuster and force the Senate into what appears to be a pointless wee-hour vote, certain to entomb his bill in a legislative grave.

While the White House was publicly urging Congress to move forward. “The parties are not that far apart here,” the president said in his weekly address to the nation. “There is very little time.”

The incendiary rhetoric surrounding the Boehner and Reid plans belies the fact that the two proposals are not miles apart in substance, which would suggest a compromise is reachable.

One key difference between the Boehner and Reid measures: the timetable. Boehner would require another vote to raise the debt ceiling early next year only if Congress meets two conditions: enacting further deficit reduction and sending a balanced budget amendment to the states, despite the fact that the constitutional amendment does not have the support necessary to emerge from either chamber. The Reid bill would provide mechanisms—first authored by McConnell—to allow for enough money to lift the debt ceiling through the next election.

But the politics of the debate, and the pressure from the GOP’s right flank to hold the line against the Democrats, has fueled a noxious atmosphere on Capitol Hill. “We can not unite America if we divide the movement,” said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., a long shot 2012 presidential contender, on the difficult dynamics within his party. “Consequently the time has come for the tea party to grow up and the Republican Party to wake up and serve and save this great nation.”

The political stakes were high for Democrats as well with Obama facing reelection in a sour economic climate and Democrats’ Senate majority up for grabs next year.

If McConnell and Reid do in fact fail to compromise, and Reid can't appeal to seven Republicans to side with Democrats on cloture, the Senate will push the nation closer to default with a looming Tuesday deadline.

The gridlock has spurred at least one top lawmaker to seek introspection. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he spent three hours at D.C.’s Eastern Market – an outdoor produce market near the Capitol – and drank coffee. “I wanted to get away from this place and spend a few minutes reflecting on something other than the give and take of the political debate,” Durbin said. “I sat on a bench for about three hours, just watching people walk by – trying to clear my mind.”

Durbin’s mind may be clear but the legislative situation isn’t -- except to say it remains visibly stuck. There is every indication efforts are underway invisibly to get it unstuck, but the fruits of those labors remain hidden. And there’s not much time left for lawmakers to drink coffee and people watch on a lazy Saturday morning.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.