By Alexander Bolton, Erik Wasson and Russell Berman - 07/22/11 08:40 PM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Friday washed his hands of the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling, saying it’s up to President Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to keep the country from defaulting in 12 days.
“The path to avert default now runs through the House of Representatives,” Reid said. “We in the Senate must wait for them.”
“I wish them well,” Reid said of the talks between Boehner and Obama.
The White House has yet to announce any additional meetings between Obama and GOP leaders, but the Speaker on Friday said he plans to work through the weekend on a possible package. He promised to update the GOP rank-and-file on Monday morning.
Boehner told Republicans they should be prepared to pass some kind of legislation related to the debt ceiling by Wednesday, according to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). Other lawmakers said Boehner is talking about fallback options simply because it would be irresponsible not to.
Reid had been working with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on a fallback debt-ceiling bill that would have given Obama nearly unilateral authority to raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit.
But despite efforts to sweeten the deal with up to $1.5 trillion in spending cuts and a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission, House Republicans have declared the plan a non-starter.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said it didn’t have a prayer of passing the House, and conservatives maintained their “cut, cap and balance” bill — which went down to defeat in a party-line Senate vote Friday — remained their compromise.
“We have voted to raise the debt ceiling against our strongest wishes. ... We have fulfilled our obligations,” Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said. “The attention is not on the House anymore, go stick your microphones in the faces of the Senate and the president. The House is done!”
With the House unyielding on the fallback and Senate Republicans threatening procedural delays, Reid called off a weekend session of the Senate just days after he had derided the House as “lazy” for doing the same thing.
“It looked earlier this week like the Senate would have to originate legislation perhaps as soon as today to avoid default,” he said. “Circumstances have changed. The Speaker of the House and the president have been working to reach agreement on a major deficit-reduction measure.”
Reid said he would consider moving other legislation if a debt agreement failed to emerge from the White House talks.
The president, meanwhile, kept up the pressure on Republicans to agree to a “balanced” deal with spending cuts and tax increases, telling a crowd at a Maryland town hall that “every American will suffer” if the country is allowed to default.
He said the public is already on his side when it comes to including tax increases in a debt deal, and argued it’s time for Republicans to get on board.
"The only folks we have left to convince are some folks in the House of Representatives," Obama said. "We're going to keep working on that.”
The White House and Republican leaders vehemently denied reports Thursday that Obama and Boehner were closing in on a deal to raise the debt ceiling that would include spending cuts and entitlement reforms but deal with taxes later.
Senate Democrats reacted with fury to the reports of an impending deal. Reid confronted Jack Lew, the president’s budget director, and demanded to know what was happening: “I’m the Senate majority leader — why don’t I know about this deal?” he asked.
Lew shot back: “If there’s a deal, then the president doesn’t know about it, the vice president doesn’t know about it and I don’t know about it.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said many Democrats in the meeting with Lew were “volcanic” over the idea of a budget deal that would not include new revenues.
Senators said the reports of an agreement between Boehner and Obama have sucked up all the oxygen in the debate.
“What’s happening now with the president and John Boehner, that’s the hottest thing in town,” said Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.). “That is sort of eclipsing every other effort at this particular time.”
GOP leadership in both chambers have rallied around the “cut, cap and balance” proposal, which would cut spending by $111 billion in 2012, cap spending over the next decade and prohibit more borrowing until Congress passes a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
McConnell argued the GOP plan would solve the nation's deficit crisis if Democrats would simply join Republicans in supporting it.
"This isn't rocket science," McConnell said Friday. "We could solve this problem this morning if Democrats would … join us in backing this legislation that Republicans support."
In an appearance on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show Thursday, Boehner conceded he might have to pursue an alternative solution to the debt-ceiling impasse if the Senate voted down “cut, cap and balance.”
“I do think it's our obligation to have a fallback plan if that doesn't work,” Boehner said.
Asked whether he’s concerned about walking the fine line between compromise and getting a deal, Boehner said he thought that ultimately, the president had to “take the heat” for the result of the negotiations.
Despite the lack of a breakthrough, Obama expressed confidence Friday that legislation to raise the debt ceiling will be on his desk by Aug. 2.
"We have never defaulted on our debt,” Obama said. “We're not going to do it now."
—Sam Youngman, Alicia M. Cohn and Josiah Ryan contributed.