Saturday's debt-ceiling surprise: GOP and Obama are talking again

After a rancorous day in which Republicans vented their anger at the Senate and President Obama, GOP leaders said they are in talks with the president and that 'the country is not going to default.'

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio (left) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky speak at a news conference about the US debt ceiling crisis at the Capitol in Washington Saturday.

There were signs of movement toward a potential resolution of the federal government’s debt ceiling crisis after both the House and Senate met in unusual Saturday sessions notable for partisan fireworks.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California and Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada were called to the White House for a 3:30 p.m. meeting about debt-ceiling negotiations with President Obama.

At about the same time on Capitol Hill, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky gave a press conference and expressed optimism about reaching a settlement that would keep the nation from being unable to borrow enough to pay its bills.

Senator McConnell said that he had spoken to both Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden “in the last hour,” and that the White House was “now fully engaged” in conversations with the two Republican leaders about the debt-ceiling crisis. Speaker Boehner said he and McConnell were “both confident” they could “end this impasse."

McConnell added, "Our country is not going to default. We are going to get a result."

His tone was strikingly at odds with everything that had transpired in the House and Senate up to that point Saturday, strongly suggesting that much of what had gone on before had been political theater aimed at allowing Republicans to vent their anger.

On Friday, the House bill that Boehner had spent all week crafting and recrafting was summarily dismissed in a matter of minutes by the Senate. It was the second time in a week that the Senate had dismissed a House debt-ceiling plan without debate, leading to frustration among House Republicans.

On Saturday, House Republicans essentially showed the Senate that it could play the same game. They brought to the floor one version of a debt-control plan authored by Senator Reid. It was brought to the floor under rules that did not allow amendments and required a two-thirds majority for passage.It fell well short of even a simple majority in a 246-to-173 vote.

Similarly, Boehner and McConnell sought a small measure of revenge on Obama in their press conference, saying he had single-handedly undone a bipartisan deal they worked out with Reid and Congresswoman Pelosi last weekend – a charge that Democratic leaders refute.

“We can’t do it without the president,” McConnell said.

“It was the president who derailed” talks last weekend, Boehner added. It is “time for the president to tell us what he is for.”

Broadly speaking, the White House wants legislation to boost the government’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling enough so another vote on the politically painful measure will not be needed until after the November 2012 election. The Treasury Department says the government will run out of borrowing authority on Aug. 2 and be unable to pay some of its bills.

Tempers were high on both sides of the Saturday House debate. Presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota accused the Reid plan of allowing an “insane, never before seen level of spending.” She added that “the president has no plan” for dealing with the debt ceiling crisis.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, the top Democrat on the budget committee, accused Republicans of “playing kamikaze pilot with the future of the American people.”

Meanwhile, on Saturday the Senate continued debating a different version of Reid’s debt-ceiling measure from the one the House rejected. It would authorize Obama to request two $1.2 trillion installments raising the federal debt ceiling that could be blocked only if two-thirds of the lawmakers in both houses of Congress voted against them. Those increases would be offset by $2.4 trillion in spending cuts.

A vote to cut off debate and move forward with the bill is slated for 1 a.m. Sunday. It will need 60 votes to pass.

But as the Senate began its Saturday session, McConnell announced that 43 Republicans had signed a letter to Reid saying they would not support his plan – leaving Reid three votes shy of the number he needs. Reid urged Republicans to offer ideas to improve the measure and improve its chances of passage.

“We are willing to listen to ideas to make the proposal better,” he said.

It is not clear how behind the scenes negotiations between the White House and Republican leaders will affect the late night Senate session.

Members of both parties are under increasing political heat to solve the crisis as its potential ramifications affect not only domestic but global issues. The New York Times reported that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quizzed several times Saturday by US troops in Afghanistan wondering if their paychecks would come on time. Mullen said it was not clear where money for the pay would be found if the government defaulted.

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