07.31.11

Debt Deal Comes Down to Semantics

As Congress nearly inks a $3 trillion debt deal, Daniel Stone reports on how lawmakers work on ensuring that a second round of cuts actually get made.

The only disagreement in Washington on Sunday morning is over the definition of the word “equal.”

Administration officials and congressional sources confirm that a deal on raising the nation's debt limit is nearly inked, and that both parties will come together in the coming days to approve a $3 trillion debt-reduction package over the next decade.

Under the agreement, lawmakers will approve a $2.4 trillion increase in the debt ceiling along with $1 trillion in immediate cuts for the next 10 years. At the end of this year, a joint committee of Congress will find another $1 trillion to $2 trillion in cuts. Democrats will get the debt-limit increase through 2013, which they had pushed during the entire debate. Republicans will get a guaranteed vote on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, which had been a key conservative demand, especially among Tea Party Republicans.

But to make sure that the second round of cuts are actually made later this year, leaders of both parties have floated a trigger mechanism that, if no second round was agreed to by a joint congressional committee, a series of automatic cuts would kick in that would hurt both parties equally. For Democrats, that would mean across-the-board cuts to every agency in the range of 5 percent. For Republicans, it would be to make major cuts to the U.S. defense budget. The idea is to give both parties an incentive to return to the table to negotiate later this year out of fear keeping their sacred cows from slaughter.

“There will be a very tough degree of pain,” White House economic adviser Gene Sperling told CNN’s State of the Union. “That enforcement will be an incentive for both sides to compromise.”

Early Sunday, while senior administration and congressional officials made the rounds of TV interviews, Capitol Hill aides were specifically stuck on the size of the defense cuts. Republican lawmakers had been pushing for leniency, while some senior Democrats were holding out, citing that the threat of very painful cuts is the purpose behind the trigger.

President Obama and Vice President Biden met in the Oval Office just after 9:30, likely to discuss the final terms before signing a contract with Republicans.