Debt Talks: Republicans and Democrats Jockey to Best Each Other and Save Face

Last minute debt negotiations are in danger of breaking down.

AP Photo

The question that hangs over Washington this weekend is whether the debt talks are close to breaking down at the worst possible moment.

There was a rare glimmer of optimism when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stepped to the microphone on Saturday afternoon and pronounced himself “optimistic and confident” that a deal can be reached before Tuesday’s deadline. Perhaps the dueling votes in the Republican House and Democratic Senate, each defeating proposals by the other party, were a last spasm of cynical posturing before the real backroom bargaining begins.

“I’ve spoken with the president and the vice president within the last hour. We are now fully engaged, the speaker and I, with the one person on America, out of 307 million people, who can sign a bill into law,” McConnell said.

That feeling didn’t last long. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emerged from a lengthy meeting with President Obama and Vice President Biden to say that McConnell and the Republicans “refuse to negotiate in good faith.”

“While the Republican leader is holding meaningless press conferences, his members are reaching out to me and other members … with thoughtful ideas to try to move the process forward.”

Sources say McConnell demanded passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, a favorite GOP initiative viewed by the Democrats as a fiscal straitjacket, as a condition of the deal.

Reid and McConnell, both low-key men of brevity, have a good relationship and have spent many hours negotiating over the debt crisis. While Reid’s swipe may have been tactical in nature, it also sounded like the Nevada Democrat was genuinely frustrated with the latest twist in the capital soap opera.

The exchange followed a pair of votes that amounted to wheel-spinning. On Saturday, the House voted along party lines to kill Reid’s plan, even though it hadn’t yet passed the Senate because of a filibuster threat. On Friday, the Senate voted against John Boehner’s proposal less than two hours after the speaker pushed it through the House.

Still, the fact that McConnell initiated contact with Biden is a positive sign, and GOP sources say that despite Reid’s barbs, the Kentucky Republican has a solid basis for his optimism.

McConnell has notably played both sides of the debate, aligning at times with the White House and Reid on raising the debt ceiling, and at other times endorsing Boehner’s actions—and his proposal—in ways that have alienated Hill Democrats.

McConnell circulated a letter signed by 43 of the 47 Republican senators vowing to oppose Reid’s measure when it comes for a vote, which is scheduled for early Sunday morning around 1 a.m. The number is telling: Reid needs 60 votes to cut off debate and move to a simple majority vote. With Reid’s measure almost certain to be tweaked in the hours before the vote, the question becomes what the majority leader will have to insert to woo a handful of Republicans—without making it a poison pill for the Democratic side.

Obama batted down that critique, saying in his weekly video address that Democrats have acted in good faith. “Democrats in Congress and some Senate Republicans have been listening and have shown themselves willing to make compromises to solve this crisis,” he said. “Now all of us—including Republicans in the House of Representatives—need to demonstrate the same kind of responsibility that the American people show every day.”

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In their hastily planned news conference, Boehner and McConnell jostled with reporters about the course of the next few days, saying that were “fully engaged” with the White House. Neither man would offer specifics about what that deal would look like, other than to say that Reid's plan wasn't a viable option. Boehner repeatedly said that it was now time for Obama to “get out of this cul de sac he’s driven us into.”

Media-savvy lawmakers, meanwhile, are doing round-the-clock TV interviews and impromptu hallway press conferences to push their narrative of the past two weeks: Democrats arguing that the Tea Party wing has hijacked the Republican Party and made it unwilling to find a reasonable compromise, and Republicans claiming that Democrats haven’t been willing to put a written plan on the table. Both arguments contain elements of truth, but are primarily designed for voters at home, not their fellow negotiators.

But beyond the spin and partisan accusations lie the elements of a potential deal.

The Reid proposal, which cuts federal spending by $2.4 trillion without raising taxes, is not that far from the Boehner plan. The primary difference is that Reid would extend the debt limit until early 2013, which Boehner and Republicans have likened to a "blank check" for Obama, and while Boehner would require a second vote during the campaign—and is insisting on a balanced budget amendment.

A senior Republican aide told THE DAILY BEAST that House Republicans are likely to concede a debt limit increase until 2013 with the addition of a trigger mechanism to ensure another round of cuts early next year—or automatically impose a series of draconian cutbacks or a vote on the balanced budget amendment. The idea essentially amounts to litigating the next debt limit increase now rather than in 2012 to avoid the even more polarizing environment of a presidential campaign.

Trying to bridge the divide, GOP Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, who's also running for president, came to the floor and warned his colleagues: “The time has come for the Tea Party to grow up and the Republican Party to wake up and come together to serve and save this great nation.” But with time running short and tempers running high, America’s risk of default appears more ominous by the hour. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told reporters Saturday that he sat on a Capitol Hill park bench for three hours in the morning just to clear his head before arriving to work. Others sensed the worst may be yet to come. While heading to her office midday Saturday, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill took to Twitter. “Taking a blanket and pillow to the Capitol,” she wrote. Then she quipped: “Never a good sign.”