Now, Congress down to its last strike to avoid debt-ceiling default

By rejecting the bill passed by the House Friday, the Senate essentially now has one last shot to get a debt ceiling increase through Congress before the Aug. 2 deadline.

Yuri Gripas/REUTERS
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada speaks during a joint news conference with Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York (left) and Senate majority whip Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois (right) on debt ceiling crisis on Capitol Hill in Washington Friday.

After a night of high drama on Capitol Hill, a legislative solution to the debt crisis now shifts to the Senate, where leaders of both parties must now try to guess what will pass in the House – perhaps the worst bet in all of politics.

The situation is the result of strategic mistakes in the buildup to Friday's debt-ceiling votes, which produced an outcome exactly the opposite of what GOP leaders had hoped. Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio had hoped to win support from House Democrats this week by scaling back the House's earlier “cut, cap, and balance” bill. With Democratic support in the House, the bill would have had a credible shot in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Instead, his proposal alienated not only House Democrats but also the president and GOP conservatives. After an aborted attempt to hold a vote Thursday, an amended bill did at last pass the House Friday, 218 to 210, but without a single Democratic vote and without 22 Republican defectors. Later Friday, it failed in the Senate, which voted to table Mr. Boehner's bill, 59 to 41, effectively derailing it.

That makes the plan coming out of the Senate likely the last chance for Congress to vote to raise the debt ceiling before Aug. 2, when the country would default on some domestic spending obligations, which could include checks for Social Security recipients and veterans.

In short, months of negotiation have come down to a situation where the Senate has one shot to get it right – a compromise that will pass both the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House in three days. At a time when even the speaker of the House appears uncertain what his caucus will or will not support, it is a Herculean task.

“We all know the Senate is the only way out of this mess,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York Friday night.

But even getting a proposal through the Senate appears to be a big reach, since any bill would need at least seven GOP votes to reach the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada introduced a plan earlier this week that would cut spending by $2.2 trillion over 10 years and raise the debt ceiling through 2012 immediately. But Republicans, burned by similar bargains in the past, want assurances that those cuts will, in fact, take effect – hence their insistence on an accompanying balanced-budget amendment.

Behind the political theater on the floor, negotiations have been ongoing for weeks both within the Senate and between the Senate and House leaders over how to resolve this crisis.

Senator Reid and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, while not close friends, have developed a strong, working relationship. Unusually, they have a “nonaggression pact,” which means that neither one will campaign against the other. They speak several times a day and recently collaborated over how to improve a “last choice” proposal by Senator McConnell that would give the president a fast-track option to raise the debt limit with the support of only 34 senators.

“They’re not best friends, but they’re two old bulls who kind of see the world in the same way,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

The challenge in resolving the debt crisis will be to find a way to strike a bipartisan deal capable of passing the Senate that will not alienate Republicans needed to pass the measure in the House. “Something bipartisan in the Senate is a positive virtue, while in the House it’s a disqualifying problem,” he adds.

Indeed, in a surprise move, House Republicans could bring up a version of the Reid proposal for a vote on Saturday, well before the Senate takes it up on Sunday. Some House Republicans want to send a message to the Senate that the plan is unacceptable to them.

Yet House Democrats say it’s essential that the Senate send back a bill that does not require a second vote on raising the debt limit – one of the elements of Boehner's plan. “If they want 218 votes, they’re going to have to come to us,” says Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington.”

“We’re in for a very difficult Monday night,” says Rep. Rob Andrews (D) of New Jersey, referring to when many lawmakers expect to take final votes on the Senate deal.

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