08.01.11

Debt-Deal Cliffhanger

In the final hours before a vote on a deal to raise the nation’s debt limit, both parties scrambled to make sure they had the votes.

After a last-minute rush by leaders in both political parties, the House debated Monday evening a deal to cut spending and raise America’s borrowing limit in a prelude to a cliffhanger vote to avoid defaulting on the U.S. debt.

Members from both parties rallied late in the day to support the compromise plan struck between congressional leaders and the White House, from Tea Party favorites like Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. And House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan predicted the legislation would pass with support from a majority of Republicans and many Democrats.

If the House approves the deal, a final vote would be held Tuesday in the Senate, and the legislation would reach President Obama’s desk to be signed in time to avoid a default on U.S. debt.

The votes were preceded by a frenzied sales effort by leaders in both parties, who acknowledged the plan wasn’t perfect, but insisted it was the best possible solution given the impending deadline. The compromise would cut spending over the next decade by about $1 trillion immediately and name a special committee of Congress to identify an addition $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion in additional cuts by the end of the year. It also would raise the nation’s borrowing limit, which was set to hit its ceiling on Tuesday.

White House press secretary Jay Carney sold the package to skeptical reporters as a win for all sides. “The deal negotiated with the leaders of Congress is a victory for the American people,” he said, to some groans from the press corps sensing the White House spinning a win out of an episode in which it made substantial concessions.

To quell those anxieties, Vice President Joe Biden made a trip to Capitol Hill on Monday afternoon to meet with the Democratic caucuses of both chambers.

“We got the best we could,” he told a House meeting, according to one Democratic member sticking to the traditional rules of not talking openly about what happens in closed meetings. Biden also mentioned a few components that would be good for Democrats later, like the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of 2012 which will bring in trillions in new revenue. Revenue increases were also possible through an elite joint committee of 12 members tasked with finding another 1.5 trillion in cuts over the next few months.

But despite making the hard sell, several members saw Biden’s visit mostly as a courtesy call, showing respect for members who would soon have to take a tough vote imposing painful cuts to government programs.

“There’s no question he’ll get the votes. If the president and Senate majority leader and House minority leader support it, they’ll get the votes they need. If they need a few more, they’ll make some calls, but they’ll get there,” says Rep. Brad Sherman, a senior Democrat from California, who, when he spoke with the Newsweek and The Daily Beast, was still reading the bill. (He said he’d most likely support it—a common refrain among most Democratic members keeping card close to the vest before Monday’s evening vote.)

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney sold the package to skeptical reporters as a win for all sides.

There are still some lingering questions. When reporters asked Speaker Boehner if he had the votes for passage in the House, he didn’t answer. On the other side of the aisle, Pelosi has also declined to say whether she would climb on board, clearly struck by the depths of cuts to things like Medicare that would affect the Democratic base. But with both parties willing to sign on to the deal, only about half of each caucus needs to vote yes.

Yet in the hours before the final vote, several constituencies still held back. “I’m not going to vote for this because it doesn’t go far enough,” Rep. Joe Walsh, one of about 30 freshman tea party members who drove much of the debate, said Monday. “I said I’d only agree if there was a balanced budget amendment included, which there isn’t.” The final agreement only requires a vote on an amendment, which is unlikely to pass considering the current legislative calculus.

The other holdout group: Pentagon supporters. Under the formal deal, a powerful trigger would kick in beginning in 2013 if the special committee couldn’t agree on the second round. The trigger would cut about $600 billion directly from the Pentagon’s budget, leaving some in the defense community feeling blindsided and the victims of compromise.

While many on Capitol Hill were feeling an element of relief, a group of about a half dozen lobbyists for defense contractors filled one elevator, all silent, clearly with their work cut out for them.