Demolition Debt Derby’s Final Lap
UPDATE: House Republicans rejected Sen. Harry Reid's debt compromise in a symbolic vote Saturday afternoon, as Senate Democrats scrambled to get 60 votes to break the Republican filibuster before the 1 a.m. vote. Reid’s new plan raises the debt ceiling in two stages, like John Boehner’s plan that the Senate rejected yesterday, but it gives President Obama power to raise the ceiling a second time without congressional approval, allowing Republicans to formally disapprove of it. Reid called on Senate Republicans to pass the bill, calling the House a "Tea Party-driven Congress" and said Republicans "have gotten a lot of what they've wanted."
As the ugly wrangling continued on Capitol Hill, as a divided Republican Party scrambled for votes, as a mystified nation waited for news that default might be averted, President Obama stepped before the cameras—again—to plead for a solution to the debt crisis.
“Make a phone call,” the president told viewers. “Send an email. Tweet. Keep the pressure on Washington, and we can get past this.”
Keep the pressure on Washington? Isn’t that his job? Does he think the impasse can be broken on Twitter?
All presidents try to rally public opinion to their side. But as the capital struggled through another Groundhog Day of posturing and positioning, the inside game was all that mattered.
A day after John Boehner suffered the humiliation of having to withdraw his own budget bill, the speaker made changes that enabled him to ram the measure through the House late Friday. The vote was 218 to 210, with 22 Republican defections and zero Democratic support. “We’ve done everything we can to find a common-sense solution that could pass both houses of this Congress and end this crisis,” Boehner said.
Of course, his key change—to make a second round of budget cuts contingent on Congress approving a balanced-budget constitutional amendment within months—made it certain the measure would be DOA in the Senate. It took less than two hours Friday night for Harry Reid, who called it “an embarrassment,” to bury the Boehner bill, 59 to 41. Another day of wasted energy in the nation’s capital.
Meanwhile, the Senate majority leader introduced his own debt measure so he could attempt to break an expected GOP filibuster after midnight Saturday. The Senate adjourned after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell flatly told Reid he would not negotiate with him over the Democratic bill.
If all this parliamentary pussyfooting is a tad confusing, here’s the bottom line: With each chamber having gone through a partisan pantomime, the real work—hammering out a compromise in a House-Senate conference—will finally begin. “Once people vote for what they want, it becomes easier to get people to vote for what they don’t want,” says a senior Republican aide on the Hill, referring to the Tea Party holdouts.
The only question is whether, having dithered for so long, the lawmakers can beat the default deadline of midnight Tuesday.
It’s a reasonable bet that this battle will go down to the wire, given the well-documented pattern that nothing gets done in Washington until it absolutely has to be done. And sometimes not even then. It’s no coincidence that the stock market dropped for the sixth consecutive session Friday, and an anemic deal could lead rating agencies to downgrade U.S. debt.
Obama’s bland comments on Friday were designed to show that he’s still in the game after a low-profile week and, White House officials say, to contrast a calm and deliberate president with the backbiting within the GOP. But he’s not taking a laid-back approach to the crisis; presidential aide Valerie Jarrett says Obama is getting “absolutely no sleep.”
The president is clearly frustrated that what was once a routine action—how many times has he mentioned that the debt ceiling was raised 18 times under Ronald Reagan?—has metastasized into one of the turning points of his tenure. “There are a lot of crises in the world that we can’t always predict or avoid-–hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks,” he said. “This isn’t one of those crises. The power to solve this is in our hands.”
The parameters of the debate make clear that however the deadlock is resolved, the conservatives have won this round. Remember, the original White House position was that there should be a “clean” debt-ceiling bill with no conditions attached. Then Obama was willing to consider trillions of dollars in cutbacks in domestic spending programs as long as they were balanced by some tax increases and loophole-closings. Now the argument is solely about budget cuts—the Democrats have taken revenue hikes off the table—and how and when they should be put into effect.
The magnitude of the mess has made it hard for each party to swallow a potential solution. Liberal Democrats have revolted over Obama’s agreement to make significant reductions in Medicare and Social Security. Many GOP hard-liners couldn’t swallow the original Boehner bill Thursday even though it contained no tax hikes—and even though the speaker had said he couldn’t do his job unless they got their butts in line.
Such is the state of relations that after John McCain mocked the most intransigent conservatives as “Tea Party hobbits,” Sen. Rand Paul shot back that “I’d rather be a hobbit than a troll.”
What will it take to get a majority of hobbits, trolls, and other Beltway creatures to defuse this crisis?
The Reid bill would raise the debt ceiling through 2013, sidelining it as a campaign issue. It could contain a series of possible penalties, if a second round of budget cuts isn’t achieved by a yet-to-be-named congressional committee, that would be unpalatable to Democrats. Reid is hoping to peel off enough Republicans—such as Scott Brown, Maine’s female senators and Gang of Six member Tom Coburn—to reach the needed 60 votes.
In short, Congress will probably wind up papering over its differences with a menu of complicated options that again puts off the most difficult decisions until later.
It’s a good thing both chambers will be in session all weekend. This thing is going down to the wire, and all the tweets in the world won’t change that.
Daniel Stone contributed to this article.