Heading for a debt-limit rerun

Washington summers can be brutal, but the July and August months of 2011 were especially torrid in the nation’s capital.

The two parties were outdoing each other in brinkmanship over the federal debt and over what conditions, if any, should be attached to a deal to raise the ceiling on it. It was ugly, and Republicans and Democrats want to avoid a rerun. 

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They probably don’t dislike the prospect enough, however, to prevent it from happening again.

This month, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reiterated President Obama’s insistence that Congress pass a “clean” debt-ceiling hike — that is, one that comes without strings attached.

In a letter to congressional leaders, Lew wrote, “We will not negotiate over the debt limit.” This itself can be seen as an opening negotiating position for a deal that does not have be struck until the fall.

Republicans, however, are insisting on deficit-reduction measures as part of any debt-limit increase. They scoff at a clean hike, noting it doesn’t have the votes to pass Congress.

Obama has reached out to Republicans on Capitol Hill, hosting several dinners. But as The Hill reported over the weekend, the president’s “charm offensive” has not yet yielded any results.

“We’ve made no progress. None,” said a GOP senator who had dinner with Obama earlier this year. “There’s no process in place. Right now, we just have 20 Republican senators meeting and talking to themselves.”

Meanwhile, House Republicans are still mulling what exactly they want to ask the White House for in exchange for lifting the debt limit.

Supporters of the president say Obama has compromised significantly with the GOP, pointing out that he included a Social Security reform fix favored by Republicans in his budget. They add that Obama’s olive branch was summarily rejected.

There is little doubt that Democrats and Republicans are jockeying for position, hoping to negotiate the best deal possible for their respective parties. But the clock is ticking, and there is little chance of progress between now and the August congressional recess.

Lawmakers don’t return to town once they leave for the summer recess until Sept. 9, and there will likely be other issues vying for their attention, such as immigration reform and appropriations bills.

In February, Obama said, “I don’t know why it is in this town, folks leave stuff until the last minute.”

Republicans have made similar comments for several years.

The president’s outreach to the GOP is a good idea, but steak and beer only goes so far. Unless there is more action and follow through in the coming months, a repeat of 2011 is inevitable.