There’s Big Talk in Washington of a Deficit Deal. Can the Center Hold?

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Though President Obama and House Speaker Boehner have yet to outline a single idea or, so far as we know, commit to anything, both Democrats and Republicans have begun attacking a so-called “grand bargain” for deficit reduction in conjunction with the vote to raise the debt ceiling. There are the “Hell No” GOP freshmen, who probably weren’t going to vote for it anyway). There are the progressives, who are balking at the prospect of $4.5 billion in cuts traded for whatever Republicans are willing to give up on taxes. Even Democratic leaders have to be wondering what their incentive is to see this through – and carry Obama’s water again – when it likely only dims their prospect of re-taking the House. So, the question is: Can the center hold?

Almost all of the drama is focused in the House. “There’s a deal that could pass the Senate next week,” Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, told TIME on Thursday. “The question is, what can pass the House? Boehner is going to need Democrats for this – whether its 30 or 100 remains to be seen.”

Most of the veterans trust Boehner. “This conference has a lot of confidence in John Boehner. He has a good sense of what he can and cannot do,” says Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, former chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee. “I think he’ll get a majority of Congress for whatever deal he gets – a majority of the conference.”

But Boehner hasn’t had an easy time convincing his conference of much lately. It took three tries to successfully get a widely bipartisan Patent bill squeaked through the House. And he lost two humiliating votes on Libya – notably while trying to cover for the President. Even on the 2011 budget deal, he lost 59 Republicans — though he got 81 Democrats, including almost all of the 26 conservative Blue Dogs.

If you take the 2011 budget vote as a blueprint for a debt ceiling deal and write off the fringes – the 59 Republicans who viewed $38.5 billion in cuts to the 2011 budget as insufficient and the 108 Democrats who voted against it because they thought the cuts were too deep – there are still enough votes in the center to pass a debt ceiling deal. But at least two dozen of the Dems who voted for the 2011 budget, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, would flip if House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi moves against the debt ceiling deal. And if the left thinks Obama is simply triangulating to win reelection, few are going to stick out their necks to vote for this. Obama has much work left convincing Democrats, a task that starts on Friday with an Oval Office meeting with Pelosi.

There are other problems. Senior aides to several GOP freshmen told TIME the “Hell No” caucus is much bigger now than it was during the 2011 budget debate. Many members are worried that if they pass anything resembling a tax hike, they’ll get primaried by an outraged Tea Party. Others are leery of Speaker Boehner. While $38.5 billion in cuts to the 2011 budget seemed like a big number at the time, some freshmen lawmakers felt that the deal turned out to be a lot of smoke and mirrors and not a lot of substantive cuts. Passing a deal without a majority of Republicans would be politically perilous for the Speaker. And Boehner still has a ways to go to convince even his own deputies. At the White House meeting on Thursday, when participants were asked to state their preference for either a small, medium or large deficit reduction package, everyone chose the biggest option except for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Cantor said he didn’t think such big tax hikes could get through the House, and was quickly seconded by Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Senate Republican.

There is no doubt that the big winners of a grand bargain would be Obama and Boehner. Such a deal could help ensure the President’s reelection and cement Boehner’s hold on a House he controls by just two-dozen seats. But if there are winners, there are also losers. Pelosi’s dreams of taking back the House would suffer. As would Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chances of taking control of the Senate – though his odds are still much better than Pelosi’s. Some have wondered if Obama and Boehner aren’t indulging in a bit of theater: aiming to go big so that when that falls flat, the medium size package – which is actually still quite substantial with upwards of $3.5 trillion in savings – won’t seem so controversial. But neither Obama nor Boehner seem the type to play games. If it’s the big package they want, they have their work cut out for them.