Lawmakers increased the pressure on their party leaders Friday, fearful that they were driving toward a landmark debt deal that could not pass a bitterly divided Congress.
As a heightened sense of anxiety spread across Capitol Hill, rank-and-file legislators broke off into partisan factions. They lashed out at their leaders in private and public, signed pledges and delivered ultimatums — for Republicans, no fresh tax revenue; for Democrats, no changes to Medicare and Social Security benefits.
“They’re making a grievous mistake if they think they can just present anything to us and assume that because we’re Democrats, we’ll go along with what the president has capitulated to,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told reporters.
With the high-stakes debt talks nearing the endgame, Washington’s leaders are caught in a struggle to pry lawmakers from their polarized power centers and toward the political middle.
A potentially historic accord is in the offing, but it would inflict pain across the ideological spectrum. Even if President Obama and the eight congressional negotiators agree to a grand bargain, it is increasingly apparent that Congress could fail to pass it.
“I could see a scenario where everybody agrees to a deal and when they finally put the deal on paper, the guys who agreed to the deal no longer believe it’s a deal,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in an interview. “I’m always optimistic. But here I’m pretty neutral.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who leads a bloc of liberals, was more stark in an interview: “If they can reach a deal, will it get support in either or both caucuses? That’s totally unknown.”
The contours of an agreement to raise the debt limit, which must occur before Aug. 2 or Treasury officials say the country will go into default, are only now coming into focus. It could result in up to $4 trillion in savings over the next decade by overhauling the tax code and tackling all the major drivers of federal spending, including the Pentagon budget and Medicare and Social Security.
Most Republicans say increasing taxes is off the table. Some prominent Republicans are open to eliminating corporate tax loopholes as long as overall rates are lowered and any deal does not result in a net revenue increase. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) called this the “sweet spot,” adding that “there is an understanding that we need to do both: reduce the spending and reform the tax code.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are adamant about not cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits. “We are not going to reduce the deficit or subsidize tax cuts for the rich on the backs of America’s seniors and working families,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Friday.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sought to tamp down expectations. “It’s not like there’s some imminent deal,” he told reporters, at one point holding his arms far apart to show the gulf between the two sides. “This is a Rubik’s cube that we have not worked out yet.”
Assembling a majority in Congress is always difficult, with 435 representatives and 100 senators who have diverse constituencies and champion varied interests.
Boehner cannot count on Republicans alone to provide enough votes to reach the 218-vote threshold for passage in the House. Many GOP members are opposed to raising the debt limit altogether, either on principle or because they fear alienating tea party activists who propelled their insurgent campaigns and could easily pick a new insurgent in 2012. Without what some lawmakers have dubbed the “hell-no caucus,” Boehner would be forced to rely on Democrats for a majority.
“We make a big trade-off in this country for freedom and input and everybody being heard, and the trade-off is efficiency,” former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) said in an interview. “The only thing that counts is a majority, and if you don’t have that, nothing’s going to happen.”
One point of agreement is that something has to happen.
“If we can’t figure this out, it will be a pox on both our houses, Republicans and Democrats,” Portman, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush, said in an interview.
Several lawmakers said a major debt deal would be the single most important domestic policy vote of their careers — and that frustration over private negotiations is growing.
On Thursday morning, Pelosi and House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) summoned House Democrats to the Capitol basement for a private meeting before the two leaders attended White House talks.
That’s where Rep. Kathy Hochul — whose May upset in a New York special election was a rallying point — rose to lay out the political risks of including cuts to Medicare in any debt deal.