Debt Crisis: Who's Who

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

Barack Obama

The president is frantically positioning himself as “the adult in the room.” Despite having voted against a debt-ceiling increase back in 2006, Obama now says it is “irresponsible” to play politics with the national debt. He wants a long-term deal that both cuts trillions from the federal debt and raises the ceiling, hoping to avoid a messy reprise of this fight just before his 2012 re-election bid. And in what looks like classic Clinton-esque triangulation, he’s calling on his own party to accept cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security even as he insists that Republicans must accept revenue increases.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

John Boehner

The House speaker finds himself between a rock and a hard place. More comfortable with the old-school, pro-business wing of the GOP than its newer, fiscally fundamentalist Tea Party wing, Boehner said of the prospect of failing to raise the limit, “It puts us in an awful lot of jeopardy, and puts our economy in jeopardy, risking even more jobs." He has been the Republican point man for negotiations with Obama, and seemed near a deal until it emerged that he was open to revenue increases—anathema to Tea Partiers, for whom he’s already suspect. Now he has pulled out of talks on a long-term deal, which puts him in double jeopardy: the public could blame him for dooming a deal, but Tea Partiers won’t forgive him if he gives in to Obama.

Susan Walsh / AP Photo

Eric Cantor

The only thing that worries Boehner as much as economic disaster is his deputy, House Majority Leader Cantor. A younger, harder-line Republican with more Tea Party cred who’s thought to have his eye on the speaker’s gavel, Cantor has been staunchly opposed to any deal that brings in additional federal revenue, including closing tax loopholes. On Monday, after Boehner’s abrupt withdrawal from talks, Cantor looked in control and did most of the talking for his party.

William B. Plowman / AP Photo

Tim Geithner

As Treasury secretary, Geithner is on the bridge of the Titanic with the iceberg in sight—and no rudder to turn the ship away. The nation should have hit the debt ceiling back in May, but Geithner shuffled the books to gain some extra time. He says not raising the ceiling would be “catastrophic,” but he’s powerless to do much if Congress can’t agree on a path forward before an Aug. 2 deadline.

Jay LaPrete / AP Photo

Joe Biden

Once everyone’s idea of a hapless bungler, the vice president has become a key figure in debt talks. After negotiations at the congressional level failed, Biden convened talks among top leaders on both sides, including Cantor and Sen. Jon Kyl for the Republicans. When those discussions also came up short in late June, all eyes turned to Obama, but Biden is still involved with the Obama-led talks.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Paul Ryan

He’s the Republican budget wizard, but Ryan has been less visible in recent weeks. That’s a sign that things have moved from the wonky to the political. But don’t forget about him: with negotiators haggling over massive deficit reduction and potential cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the Wisconsin representative’s controversial budget plan is exerting a serious influence on the discussion.

Chris Butler / AP Photo

Grover Norquist

Unlike everyone else on this list, Norquist isn’t an elected politician, but he’s perhaps the most important figure on the right in the discussion. The longtime head of Americans for Tax Reform has flexed his muscles repeatedly in the debate. Norquist even got in a spat with Sen. Tom Coburn, one of Congress’s most fiscally conservative members, over an ethanol subsidy this spring: Coburn wanted to kill it in the name of fiscal discipline, while Norquist wanted to save it in the name of avoiding tax hikes at all costs. That rift was portrayed as weakening Norquist’s position, but Boehner’s seeming terror at any revenue increase in recent days shows that Norquist is still a force to be reckoned with.

Alex Brandon / AP Photo

Harry Reid

On the Democratic side, the Senate majority leader is perhaps the most important Democrat besides the president. He’s been involved in talks at the White House, and was also responsible for canceling the Senate’s July 4 recess. Though typically seen as a moderate who’s willing to compromise, his “testy” reaction to President Obama’s willingness to discuss Social Security cuts suggests tension within the Democratic caucus.

Alex Brandon / AP Photo

Mitch McConnell

With only a minority in the Senate, the quietly effective Kentuckian doesn’t have the sway that Reid does. But he, too, has sought to exert an influence over the talks—he’s long been a backer of entitlement reform—while seeking to avoid the harsh pressure and potential political fallout that John Boehner risks in the talks.

Alex Brandon / AP Photo

Nancy Pelosi

She’s not out of the picture yet. With an even smaller proportion of the House than McConnell holds in the Senate, Pelosi doesn’t have much leverage—but she’s fiercely using what she’s got. As usual, the former speaker has positioned herself as the defender of the liberal Democratic legacy, pushing back on any prospect of cuts to entitlements. While that might normally marginalize her, math whiz turned pundit Nate Silver points out that Boehner and Obama may need her help—assuming they can ever reach a deal. With many Republicans implacably opposed to any revenue increases or other concessions to Democrats, Democratic House votes will be crucial to passing a plan, and she has the keys to the caucus.

AP Photo

Gang of Six

Though they were once seen as the best hope for a deal, it turned out the Gang couldn’t shoot straight enough to solve anything. An old-style boys’ club of senators negotiating in secret, it included Democrats Mark Warner, Dick Durbin, and Kent Conrad (left) along with Republicans Tom Coburn (right), Saxby Chambliss, and Mike Crapo. But Coburn withdrew in mid-May, saying they’d reached an “impasse.” The remaining five vowed to soldier on, but have faded from view—although Conrad proposed his own plan Monday.