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September 16, 2019

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The Policy Racket

Will the debt ceiling crisis trigger political magic?

Debt crisis

Carolyn Kaster / AP

President Barack Obama meets with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Saturday, July 23, 2011, in Washington, to discuss the debt.

Click to enlarge photo

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., whispers to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in the House Speaker's office before a meeting on the debt limit increase in Washington on Saturday, July 23, 2011. The pair will co-chair a new think tank at UNLV.

Options, options.

As President Barack Obama scrambles to retain his behind-the-scenes relevance to the congressional conversation, Speaker John Boehner struggles to hold on to the loose ends of his Republican caucus, and Washington generally heads into hyperventilation mode at T minus 5 days to a debt default, Senator Harry Reid's office is taking some time to wait things out, and ponder their next procedural move.

Boehner spent the last 24 hours forcibly rewriting his bill and regrouping House Republican support around it with such warm entreaties as "get your ass in line" and the odd motivational scene featuring actor Ben Affleck in the movie "The Town" (in which he solicits "help" from his friend for an operation in which they're "gonna hurt some people") after both fell apart late Tuesday.

A Congressional Budget Office assessment found the cuts in both Boehner and Reid's bills came in under target. That was more problematic though for Boehner, who'd been the one to make the rule that every dollar the debt ceiling is raised be matched with at least a dollar of cuts.

But the package, now worth slightly less than $1 trillion, cuts only slightly more than a third of the spending that disappears under Reid's proposal, and barely a sixth the size of what the House Republicans had wanted to do in the first place, with their balanced budget amendment and caps-driven approach.

In the last day, some Republicans who splintered away from Boehner appear to have returned; but the vote taking place today on his bill is still touch-and-go.

No Democrats are expected to support the measure, which only guarantees about six months' worth of relief to the debt limit, and leaves the fate of future, necessary hikes in the hands of a bipartisan Joint Commission of lawmakers, tasked to draft a scheme of further cuts before year's end.

If it fails, Reid will have to file a procedural motion on his own plan, which he's presently tweaking to bridge the gap between the $2.2 trillion in cuts the budget office says it makes, and the $2.7 trillion Democrats had intended to cut. That bill raises the ceiling by $2.4 trillion, into 2013. And that move will set up a weekend showdown.

But if Boehner can muster the votes — and his future as Speaker may depend on his ability to get that done — Reid could go one of a few ways.

First, he could ignore the House's vote and go ahead and work on his own bill anyway. But that doesn't accomplish much, and with only five days to go, would look like a lack of willingness to compromise.

Second, he could have a vote on it, with the intention of killing it in the Senate chamber. This option, while it certainly would make a statement, also seems like one that's a little too politically flamboyant for the final hours.

Or third: he could set the bill up for a vote, with the intention of swapping out his own bill -- or some compromise he reaches with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in the meantime -- as the guts of the legislation.

Senate Democratic leaders, though they're closely watching the House floor for a cue, seemed to be leaning toward that final option on Wednesday, not only because it simplifies the process of compromise between the parties and houses of Congress, such as it is, to be working off the same piece of legislation, but because it also speeds things along.

With so many Democrats opposed to Boehner's plan, and so many Republicans opposed to Reid's (and many other Republicans simply opposed to raising the debt limit), no bill is going to get through the Senate without clearing a series of high, 60-vote threshold, procedural hurdles -- each of which, by the Senate's rules, merit 30 hours of debate.

But working with the House's bill removes the need to cajole the Senate to approve an introductory "motion to proceed" stage, saving time, and, Democrats hope, goodwill among the Republicans they'll need to hop on board in order to get anything through.

As everyone watches the clock, not all members are convinced that will actually be possible.

"I don't see any compromise. I think we've gone down every avenue that we can. I don't see anything happening," Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa told the Sun today, adding that Reid's proposal is "not going to go anywhere. And if they start pitching off parts of it to get Republican votes, then they're going to lose Democrats. And it'll never get through the House anyway."

Harkin is one of several lawmakers — including many members of the House — who are angling for Obama to prepare an executive order, using authority they say is provided to his office under the 14th Amendment, to unilaterally raise the debt limit through the end of 2012.

It's last-ditch operation to save the country from default, advocates of the proposal say, even though last week, the president himself nixed the idea.

Reid seems to be ignoring it too, in favor of some sort of compromise emerging.

Despite the recent fallout, there are still several similarities between Reid and Boehner's bill. But the major difference, and sticking point, is how to design a so-called "trigger" mechanism to give Republicans the votes on cuts they want to have, but give Democrats the consistency and longevity of a medium-term debt ceiling lift they — and all the credit rating agencies who will ultimately judge the outcome — say is paramount.

"Magic things can happen here in Congress in a very short period of time in the right circumstances," Reid said.

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