The debt deal isn’t the hardest part. Oh, you thought it was? Can’t really blame you: It took Republicans months to prove to the disbelieving White House that they would not raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling without hefty spending cuts, entitlement reforms, and no new taxes. Then it took weeks of negotiations for both sides to get to where they are now—near a deal in theory, but far away in reality. Big-dollar rumors stalk the Capitol—$1 trillion here, $2 trillion there, $4 trillion in all—and the time horizons for implementation spin out beyond all existing practical political comprehension: 10 years; 12 years. Who, by the way, is going to enforce the futuristic policy choices made today that come due in 2021? Zager & Evans? (Google it; it’s funny.)
So, the numbers are bigger than Washington has ever seen, and the horizons long and possibly unenforceable. There’s one other problem with the deal. It lives in the land of “could.” The road to “would” and “will” is more arduous than many imagine. Here are the many obstacles that stand in the way. Some are partisan. Others are procedural. All matter, and each must be overcome. Quickly.
The Calendar. Legislative tacticians in both parties—the stalwart and reliable souls who turn complex agreements into legislative language—say they need two or three days to write the bill and then at least 16 or 17 working days to move it through both chambers. This means that Congress will have to work through all remaining weekends and the House will have to cancel its scheduled July 18-22 recess. Congress is not scheduled to work this weekend. Starting Monday, there will be 23 days left before the debt-ceiling deadline of August 2.
The Sequence. The key players all assume that the Senate will go first, because political sensitivities there are less acute than in the House, where possible primary challenges and redistricting have made Republicans doubly nervous about the politics of this vote. Plus, a bill that passes the Senate will answer a big question for Republicans: Can President Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid force Democrats to make a deal they would never accept from a GOP president?
The Filibuster. All the Senate has to do is take a pending tax bill already sent over by the House (several are ready now), carve out the existing House tax policy, create a “shell” bill, and insert the debt-ceiling deal. That part is clean and tidy. But a big problem awaits: Because Senate Democrats did not produce or pass a budget resolution, the debt-ceiling agreement cannot be protected by the so-called reconciliation process that prohibits filibusters. So the deal will have to attract at least 60 votes. The threat of a filibuster will give opponents on both sides time to slow the process. And it could give them leverage to stop it or substantially reshape it.
The Majority. The House clerk counts 240 Republicans. But on a debt-ceiling deal, those are not the real numbers. At least 20 House Republicans won’t vote for any deal, according to House GOP leadership aides, because they say the savings won’t be big enough (they want $6 trillion) or because the measure won’t include a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. These hard-core conservatives won’t be persuaded by the enticements of yore: leadership-led fundraisers, earmarks (limited now, anyway, in the austerity era), or better committee slots. At least 20 House Republicans are willing to lose their seats rather than support a deal that they think won’t solve the problem. That means Boehner starts his vote count at 220, not 240; his need for Democratic support is larger than commonly appreciated.
The Scoring. This deal will attract more scrutiny than any other in Beltway history because House Republicans are suffering from buyer’s remorse over the near-miss government shutdown. Many conservatives found the continuing resolution that kept the government open to be less ambitious than they’d hoped: The Congressional Budget Office concluded that the CR slashed budget outlays by only $352 million this year. CBO said the deal did reduce budget authority—what the government is allowed to spend—by the leadership-advertised amount of $38 billion, but the accountants scored only what the CR actually cut, something in the range of $20 billion to $25 billion. (Congress hasn’t yet made all the cuts the CR promises.) This time, Republicans will insist that any deal must be scored, scrubbed, and body-scanned before they’ll sign on. Scoring could take a week—maybe two, depending on the deal’s complexity. See: “The Calendar,” above.
The Shutdown. Yes, another government shutdown could be just around the corner. Why? Because Congress won’t pass all 13 appropriations bills by the end of the fiscal year on September 30; by this weekend, the House will have passed four, the Senate none. That means that the debt-ceiling deal will have to carry this load, too. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell told National Journal last month that any debt-limit agreement would have to include precise and unalterable budget numbers for discretionary spending in 2012 and 2013 or Republicans would balk. So negotiators have to solve this year’s budget—in granular detail—as well as the 2013 budget to avoid a shutdown scenario this year and next (when everyone will be campaigning like mad).
Other than all this, the debt-ceiling endgame is a cinch.
This article appears in the July 9, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.