Senate Democrats have offered what one top lawmaker called a “volcanic” reaction to news the White House and House Republicans are discussing a grand-bargain, debt-ceiling deal that includes no new revenue.
The loud opposition on Thursday underscores the truth of White House and GOP denials that a deal is close; an agreement of the sort described between President Obama and the GOP would be a long way from passing. News of the proposal raises the odds that a default of the U.S. government will be avoided by August 2, but with the possible deal’s prospects dicey in both chambers, one of multiple fallback options may still offer a more likely course.
The White House and Republican leaders are discussing a potential agreement that would cut spending by $3 trillion over 10 years including through reductions in Medicare and Social Security spending, while raising the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, lawmakers said. Aides said the plan would include a tax reform effort in 2012 with new tax revenue, but no significant upfront tax increases.
Democrats see that as major and unnecessary concession. They are especially incensed because the White House floated the plan while House Republicans, in Democrats’ view, are increasingly cornered, under attack for recalcitrance and eyeing a face-saving compromise.
Democrats rarely fail to grumble when the White House weighs deals with Republicans. But in this case, Democratic opposition might be significant enough, if a deal emerges, to defeat a bill in the Senate.
Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew got an earful from Senate Democrats at a contentious caucus meeting Thursday, senators and staffers said.
Democrats “are volcanic at this point,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., told reporters. “You can’t ask us to vote when we haven’t been part of the deal.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who could largely determine the prospects of legislation based on the potential deal in the upper chamber, stopped short of an explicit attack Thursday afternoon. But Reid made it clear he is unhappy with the drift of the talks.
“There has to be fairness in this,” Reid said. “There has to be some revenue and cuts. My caucus agrees with that. I hope the president sticks with that.”
Votes would also be far from guaranteed in the House. With Democrats likely to oppose the proposal, Republicans would need to supply the lion’s share of support. With a block of conservatives still vowing to oppose any debt ceiling increase and any defense cuts in the plan, that is a tall task. Others would likely bristle at the tax revenue increase even if it’s down the road and there are promises of lower rates.
Like rank-and-file senators, House Republicans said they remain in the dark. Boehner met with House Republicans on Friday to discuss the debt talks and said he and the Democrats are not close to a deal. Many House Republicans said they will press Boehner personally for details of the potential deal. Several said they had unsuccessfully sought information from the speaker’s office Thursday.
While talk of a grand bargain grabbed attention, leaders in both chambers continued to prep fallback plans. House Republicans, supported by the Senate GOP, are drafting the text of legislation to impose perhaps $1.5 trillion in cuts identified in talks led by Vice President Joe Biden, GOP aides said. A debt ceiling increase of a matching amount would force Congress to revisit the limit in early 2012.
Reid scheduled the Senate vote on the House-passed cut, cap, and balance bill for Friday instead of Saturday; the bill failed. Reid said before the measure was defeated Friday that he is ready to start floor action as soon as Saturday on a fallback option crafted with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that would give Obama power to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion in three steps. But that plan faces stiff opposition from House Republicans, and the open Senate schedule could be used for an alternative proposal.
Billy House and Meghan McCarthy contributed
This article appears in the July 22, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.