As deadline draws near, negotiators scramble to solve debt-limit puzzle

On one side lies the chance of a historic bargain; on the other, the threat of a financial apocalypse. Negotiations over the debt ceiling have been almost unprecedented in their tortuous intensity.

With a grand bargain now looking unlikely, and the fervent House Republican freshmen too few in number to get all that they want, some middling approach appears the best bet. But the politics of the 2012 elections, both presidential and congressional, are making even that difficult.

Still, the irreducible concerns of key protagonists, and the challenges and threats they face, are becoming clearer by the hour.


Obama wants a grand bargain. But even as he reiterated this preference at a White House news conference Friday, he noted that the fallback option offered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could be a “constructive” way “to at least avert Armageddon.”

If the McConnell proposal forms the basis for an eventual deal, Obama may emerge from the negotiations relatively unscathed, at least in the short term.

He seemed to be in a weaker position than Republican leaders just weeks or even days ago. But as the possibility of default loomed and the president increasingly used his bully pulpit to cast himself as a reasonable leader frustrated by Republican intransigence, the ground shifted in his favor.

This was the soil in which the McConnell plan germinated. Obama may ultimately grab it, albeit in the knowledge that shouldering full responsibility for debt-ceiling increases carries electoral peril next year.


McConnell’s initial announcement of his plan had all the buoyancy of a lead balloon among the conservative grassroots.

Hardliners are still unappeased but the idea has unquestionably gained traction — not least because of the lack of viable alternatives as the deadline approaches.
One of the major questions is how much — or, rather, how little — Republican support it is likely to attract in the House. Significant Democratic support will almost certainly be needed to keep it alive.

Even if the plan fails, however, McConnell has solidified his reputation with all but the most strident of his Senate colleagues. Many GOP members in the upper chamber are deeply unhappy with what they see as the cavalier approach of their House colleagues.


The Speaker’s standing was diminished when he first seemed to clamber on board Obama’s “grand bargain” train, and then had to disembark in the face of opposition from within his own conference. He has also had to contend with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) becoming the public face and voice of House conservatives during negotiations.

Boehner will have to play at the top of his game as negotiations move toward a conclusion. Another stumble could raise serious questions about his leadership.

But the Speaker has not survived this long on Capitol Hill without versatile political skills. In particular, his willingness to let Cantor move to center stage may rebound to his advantage, especially as his rival ponders whether to back a deal that will almost certainly involve painful concessions.


Pelosi has been more forceful than either President Obama or her House colleague and sometime rival Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in defending social programs beloved by Democrats.

Several accounts paint her as more willing to compromise behind the scenes, however, so long as Republicans have to share the pain, too. (“A pimple on your nose is different than a pimple on an elephant’s ass,” was how she put it during one meeting, according to the Wall Street Journal.)

Reid, meanwhile, has done what Reid does: work behind the scenes on the details of a deal (some modified version of the McConnell plan), while throwing barbs across the aisle, as when he called Cantor “childish” and said that he “shouldn’t be at the table.”


The good news for Cantor: he has upped his national profile and enhanced his standing with his conservative colleagues by playing such an assertive role.

The bad news: he faces some challenging days ahead, whatever way things play out.

If he chooses not to accept a deal, Democrats will redouble their efforts to portray him as the poster boy of Republican inflexibility.

There is also still doubt about what Cantor would accept, short of the conservative ideal. No one seems to know.

Still, assaults on Cantor, including from Reid, may burnish his status, both within the party and with grassroots supporters beyond the Beltway.


Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform seems more amenable to a McConnell compromise than might have been expected.

“I think there is an argument for a back-up,” Norquist told The Hill. “I like [McConnell’s] approach.”

Norquist added: “Look, there is going to be an election in 2012. We don’t have to change the world between now and 2012.”

FreedomWorks, an organization closely associated with the Tea Party was, perhaps predictably, more scathing of the McConnell plan and of the overall process.

“We denounced the McConnell plan when the ink was still wet,” Dean Clancy, the group’s legislative counsel, told The Hill proudly.

“The White House talks are a sham because the president is not really interested in a deal,” he said. “We think he wants a government crisis that he can blame on Republicans.”


On the left, disappointment with Obama now wears only the thinnest of veils.

Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO, told The Hill that “our members are looking for leaders who care about the things that matter to them.”

Asked whether they were finding such leaders, Silvers laughed wryly and said, “Every day is a new day.”

Max Richtman of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare told The Hill that his organization’s “level of concern was elevated dramatically when the White House raised Social Security as being part of a grand bargain.”

Many liberals were actually relieved when the idea of a grand bargain was capsized by Republican opposition. But the fluidity of the negotiations continues to cause heartburn.

“If I’m optimistic now, I might be pessimistic in 10 minutes’ time,” Richtman said.