10 people to watch in debt showdown

The 2013 debt-limit fight has begun. 

Powerful policymakers on both sides of the aisle are jockeying for position in what will be a defining moment for the 113th Congress.

Economic experts have recently said the debt-limit hike could wait until the fall, though the Treasury Department has not committed to a specific date. 

But if a bill doesn’t need to be passed until after the August recess, that would benefit the GOP, which is trying to tie tax reform to the debt limit.

The following is a list of 10 players to watch on the debt-limit battle. 

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President Obama. Four months into his second term, the president has been fielding questions about his diminishing political capital. Obama suffered a major setback on gun control and is now trying to push Congress to pass immigration reform. The president has refused to negotiate on the debt ceiling like he did in the summer of 2011. While his recent charm offensive on Capitol Hill is aimed at striking a large fiscal deal, it hasn’t yielded any tangible results. Furthermore, his relationships with GOP leaders in Congress have hit an all-time low.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The Speaker has pledged not to engage in one-on-one negotiations with Obama, though it remains to be seen how a deal can be reached without the two leaders being on the same page. GOP lawmakers point out Boehner would rather watch the Senate work out a deal that can pass in the upper chamber instead of sticking his neck out on behalf of an unruly conference; Boehner confidants say the Speaker felt burned by Obama in the summer of 2011. The feeling is mutual: Obama that summer said that Boehner left him at the altar — twice.

Vice President Biden. Biden has served as a key asset to Obama, especially when dealing with Congress. He has strong relationships with Republican and Democratic lawmakers and a history of dealmaking in the Senate. He helped cut a delicate deal on the “fiscal cliff” late last year.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The top-ranking Senate Republican, whose top political goal in 2012 was to deny Obama a second term, is up for reelection in the Blue Grass State next year. McConnell worked with Biden on the fiscal-cliff agreement, though it remains to be seen if he will put his fingerprints on the debt-ceiling legislation. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Reid complained to senior White House officials about not being in the loop during the 2011 debt fight. That is highly unlikely to happen again — Reid figures to be a major player this time around, though he will also have to protect his red-state Democrats who are up for reelection in 2014. The Nevada Democrat also has to watch his left flank. Right after the election, Reid said, “We are not going to mess with Social Security.” Months later, Obama included a Social Security fix in his new budget as an olive branch to Republicans.

 • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The liberal Democratic House leader will be certain to represent the interests of the left-wing elements of her minority caucus in the House, who insist on little to no changes to entitlement programs. Pelosi has clout in the debt discussions because controversial fiscal bills usually require support from Republicans and Democrats to pass the House.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.). The head of the powerful tax-writing committee has made a determined effort of moving full-blown tax reform through the House this year. Camp has held numerous bipartisan discussion sessions with Ways and Means Committee members and has started briefing the GOP rank and file on possible reform plans. On a party-line vote last month, the panel passed a bill that would prioritize which debts to pay off. But, Camp would like to pass a much larger tax reform overhaul that could serve as a vehicle for a “grand bargain” to tackle the debt limit, deficit and debt reduction this year. The chances of that, however, are small.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). The six-term Democratic Montana senator opted against running for reelection in 2014, which might help the chances of tax reform. Baucus has formed a close bond with Camp, who wants to move a “revenue neutral” measure. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate want to reduce the deficit by closing tax loopholes. Baucus has recently clashed with Reid on an online sales tax bill, and it’s unclear how much power the retiring senator will have when debt limit talks heat up.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). The No. 2-ranked House GOP lawmaker clashed with Boehner during the 2011 talks and split with the Speaker on the fiscal-cliff bill. Unity in the House GOP Conference has increased in recent months, though it remains fragile. Boehner and Cantor both strongly oppose a “clean” debt-ceiling increase favored by the president. Biden, meanwhile, enjoys working with Cantor, and that relationship could be key later this year.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Boehner didn’t like working with Lew in the 2011 talks, preferring to negotiate with then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. According to Bob Woodward’s book The Price of Politics, Boehner found Lew to be “disrespectful and dismissive.” Lew has struck many bipartisan deals in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, but forging a debt-limit pact is his biggest challenge this year.