Liberals, Hawks Obstacles to Debt Deal
Policy + Politics

Liberals, Hawks Obstacles to Debt Deal

With a deal to lift the limit on the Treasury’s borrowing authority coming into view, congressional leaders spent Sunday surveying the contours of their caucuses to determine how many votes would be lost once the legislative details were unveiled. The defections were expected on the right and the left, among Republicans and Democrats. The task for the leaders was to make sure that neither side lost too many to doom a possible deal.

In a series of leadership huddles, conference calls and caucus meetings, top lawmakers and aides maintained cautious optimism of winning passage by Tuesday but had identified two potential obstacles: liberals in the Senate and defense hawks in the House.

Negotiators have spent three months mixing and matching potential spending cuts to accompany an increase in the debt ceiling, struggling to find the right combination that would overcome a filibuster in the Senate and to secure a majority in the unpredictable House. The trickiest issue has always been how to create an enforcement mechanism, or a trigger, to compel portions of the deal to be enacted in the future, and over the weekend Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) engaged in last-minute negotiations with Vice President Biden to produce a trigger that could lead to cuts in entitlement programs and defense spending.

“I would say we are both cautiously optimistic we will reach a conclusion soon,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Sunday at noon after speaking with McConnell.

Less than an hour later, however, during a procedural vote, a group of 15 Senate Democrats crowded around one of their leaders, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), demanding to know why the framework did not include any increased revenue through tax hikes on the wealthy or the closing of corporate loopholes. The group included the Democratic caucus’s most outspoken liberals, such as Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa), Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.) and Al Franken (Minn.).

Afterward, Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.), who was part of the huddle, said the group had “mixed” feelings toward the possible deal. “It’s not balanced, it doesn’t have revenues,” he said, disappointed that President Obama’s prior demand for “balance” was not assured. “There are a lot of people who are really withholding judgment.”

Levin said a potential deal-breaker was the trigger — which forces spending cuts across the board if a special committee cannot produce at least $1.2 trillion in cuts that win approval from the Congress. If the potential cuts to Medicare under this trigger include reductions in any benefits to the elderly, Levin said, “then you’re going to lose a lot of Democrats.”

By 5 p.m. Reid had announced his support for the plan and prepared to hold a caucus meeting to describe the package’s details. As long as the frustrations of Levin’s group do not turn into an open rebellion, most senators and top aides believe the Senate will be able to approve the massive legislation, possibly by Monday.

Even members of the Senate’s Tea Party Caucus have signaled that they would require only one 60-vote hurdle to overcome their filibuster efforts and then waive requirements for up to 30 additional hours of debate — a delay that, without acquiescence, would make it impossible to win approval in time for Tuesday’s deadline.

Initial legislative action on the deal will take place in the Senate as soon as Monday afternoon in the form of a procedural vote to end debate on the measure, setting a vote on actual passage of the bill late Monday. The measure is then likely to move immediately to the House for what could still be a close vote Tuesday.

Across the Capitol, many House Democrats are expected to support the legislation. But the level of that support is uncertain since the GOP romp of 2010 wiped out so many of the moderates who would have more easily embraced a compromise plan. Left behind is a decidedly more liberal caucus that is not enamored with spending cuts or cutting deals with Republicans.

But those liberal Democrats have seen this compromise coming, girding themselves for a deal they knew they would not eagerly embrace, although some may end up supporting it. “Ever since we got into this negotiation, I haven’t been happy with what I’ve been seeing,” Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) said Sunday, adding that for months liberals have been “preparing ourselves” for a compromise they dislike.

House Republicans, however, have not been preparing their GOP foot soldiers for some of the unpleasant aspects of a compromise; it is unclear how many of the 240 Republicans will reject the deal even though much of it is similar to a version pushed last week by Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). He tried to win approval of the bill solely on GOP votes, falling up to a dozen short, and by Saturday afternoon Boehner hosted a meeting of about 35 moderate Republicans.

Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), who attended the meeting, said he wants to find a bipartisan deal to avoid default. But he said also that he remains convinced that the debt ceiling debate is the best opportunity to get a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. And he is bothered by proposals to pass responsibility for raising the debt ceiling to the president, even if Congress is allowed an opportunity to express its disapproval.

“This is our chance to get spending under control and to address the constitutional issue,” he said. “Kicking the can, so to speak, over to the White House is not an acceptable solution.”

In addition to the moderates, there are many freshmen Republicans who, despite their tea-party-driven image, hail from swing districts where their constituents are not clamoring for the same climactic showdown as in other districts. “At some point, we have to get a deal done, and we’ve got a divided government,” said freshman Rep. Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.), whose district gave Obama 56 percent of the vote in 2008. “As I’ve looked at this whole thing, there have been certain options. And I think default is not an acceptable option.”

He would prefer a provision mandating that a constitutional amendment requiring balanced budgets win approval in the House and Senate and be sent to states, but this should not be a big stumbling block to a new deal. Duffy and more than 200 other House Republicans last week had endorsed Boehner’s initial draft, which just mandated a vote be held, similar to the current McConnell-Biden agreement.

“I don’t draw lines in the sand,” Duffy said.

The final piece of the puzzle, according to some Democratic and Republican officials, are some of Boehner’s closest allies, longtime veterans who serve on the House’s Armed Services Committee and Appropriations Committee. With more than 60 Republicans on those panels, those lawmakers have formed the backbone of support for Pentagon spending in the past two decades.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), the Armed Services chairman and a close Boehner friend, are opposed to the spending levels for next year’s Pentagon budget, and some Republicans fear that the trigger could lead to very steep defense cuts.

So, while those lawmakers are the most likely to support any deal Boehner signs off on, the final bit of negotiation has included provisions that cut right at the heart of this group’s legislative portfolio. They will have to be persuaded to live with that, and the speaker’s persuasive powers are very much in question lately.