Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) delivered a letter Saturday afternoon to Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), signed by 43 Republicans, declaring that Reid’s debt-limit legislation was unacceptable. Needing 60 votes to clear a filibuster hurdle, Reid’s current draft is assured of failure in a 1 a.m. vote Sunday.
McConnell demanded that President Obama re-engage in negotiations. “It isn’t going to pass, let’s get talking to the administration,” McConnell said Saturday in a floor speech.
House GOP leaders had won narrow approval of a plan to raise the federal debt limit Friday after revising the measure to appeal to rebellious conservatives, but it was quickly shot down in the Senate, where Democrats began pushing their own plan to avert a national default.
Heading into the final weekend before the Treasury expects to begin running short of cash to pay the nation’s bills, Reid introduced a new version of his plan to grant the government additional borrowing authority into 2013, setting up the crucial Sunday morning vote in the Senate.
Democrats conceded that they still lack the votes to repel a GOP filibuster. Reid beseeched his Republican counterpart, McConnell, to join him in reworking the measure so the Senate could pass it and send it back to the House before slumping financial markets open Monday morning.
But in a phone call Friday evening, McConnell told Reid he wanted the White House at the table and expressed frustration that President Obama had rejected an emerging compromise between the two Senate leaders last weekend. Aides said McConnell expected to speak with administration officials Friday night and tamped down talk of an impasse. But Senate Democratic leaders reacted with outrage, accusing McConnell of blocking a deal.
“Unless there is a compromise or they accept my bill, we’re headed for economic disaster,” Reid said.
The late-night jousting in the Senate followed a vote on House Speaker John A. Boehner’s debt-limit measure, which would extend the Treasury’s borrowing power until early next year and force another economy-rattling fistfight within a few months.
Drafted largely by aides to Reid and McConnell last weekend, the measure was originally designed to appeal to the more centrist Senate. But Boehner (R-Ohio) could not rally enough support from his tea-party-influenced caucus and had to rewrite it at the 11th hour to add a provision that would compel Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.
The change swayed a handful of holdouts, and the measure passed 218 to 210, with every Democrat and more than 20 Republicans voting no. But the episode was a loss of face for the speaker and his leadership team, demonstrating a lack of clout within their own conference. Even their allies in the Senate were stunned.
“Yes, people can be critical of what we’ve done, but where are the other ideas?” Boehner said on the House floor. “At this point in time, the House is going to act and we’re going to act together.”
Ultimately, it was for naught. Within two hours, the Senate tabled the measure, 59 to 41, with six conservative Republicans joining all 53 senators in the Democratic caucus in voting against the bill.
Throughout the day, senators in both parties held out hope for a bipartisan compromise to resolve the relatively small, but significant, differences between the House and Senate bills.
“We’ve gone through all this acrimony. It’s been painful for everybody to watch, I know,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) “But I’m very confident that soon we’re going to get to a place where we’ll have a bill that can pass both chambers. And I’m totally confident that the American people have nothing to worry about as it relates to Tuesday.”
Before the House vote, President Obama added to the chorus calling for compromise. He argued that the two parties are not “miles apart” and that he was prepared to work “all weekend long until we find a solution.”
At their core, the House and Senate bills are strikingly similar, having emerged from the same bipartisan talks last weekend. Both call for cutting deeply into agency budgets over the next decade and creating a new 12-member committee of lawmakers tasked with identifying trillions of dollars in additional cuts by the end of this year.
But Reid’s bill would justify a larger increase in the debt limit by counting more than $1 trillion in savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, savings Republicans dismiss as an accounting gimmick.
Boehner’s bill would give the Treasury a much shorter reprieve and require the committee to come up with $1.8 trillion in additional savings before the government could be granted additional borrowing power.