Inside Thursday’s White House Debt Ceiling Meeting: A Consensus to Go Big

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Larry Downing / Reuters

There are really only two men in Washington who have any idea of what’s going on with the race to reach a bipartisan deal on deficit reduction and they’re not talking much. On Thursday, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner gathered with leaders from both parties in Congress to discuss what a debt ceiling package might look like. From the get-go it was clear that Obama and Boehner, who sat directly to the President’s right, had discussed much of what was on the table in detail prior to Thursday’s gathering, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

The President started the meeting by making it clear that he would not accept any package that did not extend the debt limit through the 2012 elections. He then laid out three options: The group could try to work out a small package of $2 trillion in deficit reduction, a medium sized package of $3 trillion to $3.5 trillion along the lines of what Vice President Joe Biden’s working group discussed before talks fell apart last week, or a grand bargain totaling $4 trillion to $4.5 trillion in savings.

The leaders, including Senators Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Dick Durbin and Jon Kyl, and Reps. Nancy Pelosi, Eric Cantor and Steny Hoyer, went around the room stating their preferences. All of them picked either the medium or large option. Although the 90-minute meeting did not include discussion of how to achieve such a deal, Obama invited the group back for another session at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Dress casually, the President advised, they are going to be there a while.

Emerging from the meeting, Obama made brief remarks at the White House. “I thought it was a very constructive meeting,” he told reporters. “I want to emphasize that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. And the parties are still far apart on a wide range of issues. But, again, I thought that all the leaders here came in a spirit of compromise, in a spirit of wanting to solve problems on behalf of the American people. Everybody acknowledged that the issue of our debt and our deficit is something that needs to be tackled now. Everybody acknowledged that in order to do that, Democrats and Republicans are going to be required in each chamber. Everybody acknowledged that we have to get this done before the hard deadline of August 2nd to make sure that America does not default for the first time on its obligations. And everybody acknowledged that there’s going to be pain involved politically on all sides, but our biggest obligation is to make sure that we’re doing the right thing by the American people, creating an environment in which we can grow the economy and make sure that more and more people are being put back to work.” No other participants commented after the meeting.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, reporters quizzed Senators and House members about what was going on. No one, of course, had any idea. Lawmakers shrugged and said they only knew what they read. “I know about as much as you do and that’s what I read in the New York Times this morning, which I read probably about the same time you did,” Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told Politico’s Jake Sherman.

Rep. Pete King said that Boehner told the Republican conference Thursday morning that there is “a better than 50-50 chance that a deal will be reached in the next 48 hours.” “The Speaker seemed upbeat,” King continued. “He said he didn’t want to get into specifics so as not to step on the negotiations, but that we should trust him that he will not agree to tax hikes. And I do.”

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer were not having such an easy time. At a morning meeting with their caucus, House Dems gave them them an earful about rumors that Obama may agree to cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits — essentially “chaining” them to the Consumer Price Index. “What, a President triangulate?” Larson asked with mock sincerity. “Well, I never. Of course Presidents triangulate. But we have let him know our position on Social Security and Medicare and I think he understands that.”

The fact of the matter is, no one knows what a deal could look like except for Obama and Boehner. Will it include cuts to Medicare and Social Security? Will it include a pledge to deal with tax reform immediately following an agreement? No one will know more until Sunday, when the leaders sit down to hash out what an agreement might look like. Until then, everything else is speculation.

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