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October 3, 2015

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Lots of private talks, but still no deal, on debt ceiling


Susan Walsh / AP

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., center, listens during a news conference on the debt ceiling on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 21, 2011. He is joined by, from left, Rep Reid Ribble, R-Wisc, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

John Boehner

John Boehner

Sometimes, you can tell more about what’s happening behind closed doors from what you don’t hear than what you do.

Congressional Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Dick Durbin from of the Senate and Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer from the House spent almost two hours holed up with President Barack Obama on Thursday evening. It was an emergency meeting at the end of day of devastating news and damage control by Democrats.

Afterward, most of them didn’t return to the Capitol.

Obama and House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor met Wednesday night to discuss a $3 trillion compromise to raise the debt limit. It would be based largely on cuts, with only modest revenue increases. Such a compromise could affect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

That’s not a deal that sat well with most Democrats, including Reid.

“The president always talked about balance. That there had to be some fairness in this. That this can’t be all cuts,” Reid said. “There has to be a balance. There has to be some revenue in the cuts. My caucus agrees with that.”

His caucus emerged from a Thursday luncheon with White House officials to tell reporters it had been one of the most demoralizing caucus meetings they’d ever attended.

Reid has been saying that a comprehensive cuts deal is a nonstarter, not only because he doesn’t want to touch entitlement spending without raising revenue elsewhere (for example, by ending some subsidies or allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on the highest wage earners). He also says, at this juncture, there isn’t enough time to do something so broad.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, who had been pushing a grand bargain-style deal with his Gang of Six, said Thursday time is running short and suggested a stopgap measure, which the White House has opposed since the beginning.

For the past week, Reid has been pushing, along with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a backup plan that would allow the president to raise the debt ceiling in stages over the next 18 months. The plan would also feature $1 trillion to $2 trillion in cuts and leave entitlements untouched, even without accompanying revenue.

The plan hasn’t secured a lot of Republican support, even though McConnell designed it to protect Republicans from the politically unsavory position of having to defend a vote to raise the debt limit.

But apparently it doesn’t have the key ingredient of Democratic support either: The president this week called it the “bare minimum” of all options on the table.

Although Reid and Boehner are counterparts in Congress, Obama and Boehner have become the minds that need to meet to resolve various budgeting and tax crises. Both occupy the top office in their parties, and both are centrists who tend to trade toward the center of negotiations a bit more than their immediate deputies — and both seem to want a bigger compromise deal than what Reid and McConnell are proposing.

But to rank-and-file Democrats, the idea of a deal that rests on budget cuts is a difficult pill to swallow. Trading cuts to raise the debt limit, in their analysis, misses the idea that avoiding default is everyone’s concern. For Democrats, a more plausible balancing act is entitlement cuts for tax increases — but if Obama and Boehner’s discussions turn into a deal, the former will be in, and the latter, they fear, may be out.

Obama and Boehner’s aides spent the day denying there was any deal — or that the parties were even close. There are, in fact, various scenarios that could have played out in the West Wing between the president and his deputies in Congress.

Obama could have spent almost two hours whipping congressional Democrats with the news that they were going to have to take cuts with a minimal nod to taxes, or be politically responsible for default if they hold their ground on entitlements too firmly.

Or, lawmakers could have spent the time discussing a short-term measure that would allow leaders to take up a multitrillion-dollar “grand bargain” of cuts and revenue increases in early 2012.

Reid had planned to clear the Senate’s deck Friday with a vote on the Republican-favored Cut, Cap and Balance Act to make way for bringing his and McConnell’s bill, already drafted, to the floor as soon as this weekend.

Reid announced no changes to that expected schedule Thursday night.

House Republicans scheduled an all-members’ meeting for this morning, likely to talk about next steps on the debt deal.

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