Leaders Meet as Fiscal Fights Loom Large

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., second from left, accompanied by, from left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., gestures as he speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, following a meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss the economy and the deficit. 
Billy House
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Billy House
Sept. 11, 2013, 6:07 p.m.

With big dead­lines and polit­ic­al hurdles loom­ing over fights to keep the gov­ern­ment fun­ded and hike the na­tion’s bor­row­ing lim­it, a meet­ing Thursday of the top four con­gres­sion­al lead­ers could set the tone for the au­tumn.

It will be the first get-to­geth­er for Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., since Con­gress re­turned from its sum­mer re­cess. The closed-door set­ting for this kick­off meet­ing will be Boehner’s of­fice at the Cap­it­ol.

“In my view, these next six weeks are go­ing to in some ways be a lit­mus test as to wheth­er Amer­ica con­tin­ues to be a great na­tion that can man­age it­self ra­tion­ally and through a demo­crat­ic pro­cess of com­prom­ise and agree­ment,” said House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er, D-Md., on Tues­day.

In­deed, obstacles to co­oper­a­tion are already sur­fa­cing, and a po­ten­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down and na­tion­al de­fault may hang in the bal­ance.

A House vote planned for Thursday on a Re­pub­lic­an bill to keep the gov­ern­ment run­ning bey­ond Sept. 30, when the cur­rent fund­ing mech­an­ism ex­pires, was post­poned Wed­nes­day. Boehner, Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., and oth­er GOP lead­ers de­term­ined they did not yet have the votes.

The lead­ers sought to ap­pease right-wing mem­bers of their con­fer­ence by ty­ing the bill to a quirky pro­ced­ure that would force the Sen­ate to vote on de­fund­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law. But that strategy has stalled.

However, law­makers must find some way to keep fed­er­al of­fices run­ning, even if only for the short term, to al­low time for ne­go­ti­ations on a lar­ger deal that would in­clude rais­ing the debt ceil­ing be­fore mid-Oc­to­ber, when es­tim­ates show the Treas­ury will no longer be able to pay U.S. ob­lig­a­tions.

But, so far, con­gres­sion­al com­prom­ise and agree­ment are far from cer­tain. Boehner him­self has already prom­ised a “whale of a fight” over rais­ing the na­tion’s $16.7 tril­lion debt ceil­ing.

While the White House says Pres­id­ent Obama won’t ne­go­ti­ate on the debt ceil­ing, be­cause the United States must pay its bills, the speak­er says Re­pub­lic­ans won’t agree to lift the bor­row­ing au­thor­ity without sig­ni­fic­ant spend­ing cuts and changes to So­cial Se­cur­ity, Medi­caid, Medi­care, farm pro­grams, and gov­ern­ment pen­sions.

Up to this point, the in­ab­il­ity of lead­ers in both parties to make sig­ni­fic­ant con­ces­sions has been a ma­jor obstacle, il­lus­trated, for in­stance, by the fact that neither the House nor the Sen­ate has reached agree­ment on reg­u­lar ap­pro­pri­ations bills.

Now, House Re­pub­lic­ans are hav­ing dif­fi­culty uni­fy­ing them­selves be­hind a fisc­al strategy, adding an­oth­er lay­er of ne­go­ti­ation that may not bode well for talks with Demo­crats.

The stop­gap spend­ing meas­ure that Re­pub­lic­ans put forth this week, as of­fi­cially in­tro­duced by Ap­pro­pri­ations Chair­man Har­old Ro­gers, R-Ky., was ex­pec­ted to meet res­ist­ance from Demo­crats in both the House and Sen­ate, even without the Af­ford­able Care Act lan­guage. That’s be­cause it would con­tin­ue gov­ern­ment spend­ing through Dec. 15 at an an­nu­al­ized rate of $986.3 bil­lion, just un­der the cur­rent level, which in­cludes the se­quest­ra­tion cuts.

By con­trast, the Demo­crat­ic-led Sen­ate has been writ­ing up its spend­ing bills for the next fisc­al year with a topline of $1.059 tril­lion, on the as­sump­tion that se­quest­ra­tion would be re­pealed, which Demo­crats in both cham­bers have been seek­ing. Even without the Obama­care lan­guage, Hoy­er told re­port­ers that House Demo­crats would not sup­port the House GOP bill be­cause it main­tains the se­quester cuts.

And so Boehner, Can­tor, and House lead­ers were left to de­pend on get­ting enough votes from their own party, and they de­term­ined that was not de­pend­able. The delay could leave Boehner go­ing in­to the Thursday’s meet­ing with Re­id, Mc­Con­nell, and Pelosi on less than sol­id ground.

Hoy­er has already ad­vised fel­low Demo­crats not to make any plans for the last full week in Septem­ber, on the sus­pi­cion that law­makers may be still ne­go­ti­at­ing how to avert a gov­ern­ment shut­down in the fi­nal days be­fore Oct. 1.

Ex­actly how short GOP lead­ers are in terms of votes is un­clear. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a close Boehner ally, said, “Ob­vi­ously, we’re not where we need to be, or we would have voted on it.”

But per­haps a more omin­ous sign came from a state­ment re­leased by Rep. Steve Scal­ise, R-La., chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee, a group of more than 170 con­ser­vat­ives.

“We must use every le­gis­lat­ive av­en­ue,” he said, “through the CR, the debt ceil­ing, and the se­quester con­ver­sa­tions to free the coun­try from the pres­id­ent’s train wreck of a health care law.”

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