No One Is Talking: Debt Talks Silenced as Clock Ticks Down

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Bill Clark / Roll Call / Newscom

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the weekly Senate Republicans' policy lunch to speak to reporters on Capitol Hill, July 6, 2011.

With three days to go before the U.S. is forced to take drastic action to avoid default on its debt obligations, you’d think congressional negotiators would be frantically looking for a way to avoid disaster. Apparently not. Senate leaders at the center of the negotiations are not speaking.

For much of past week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid assumed that his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, was refusing to negotiate in order to give House Speaker John Boehner’s bill a chance. But at 6 p.m. on Friday night, just after the House passed Boehner’s measure, which had no hope of advancing through the Senate, Reid called McConnell and asked to restart talks. McConnell refused, saying he wanted President Barack Obama in the room.

Later Friday night — after six Republicans joined all 53 Democrats in voting down Boehner’s bill — Reid took the shell of the House measure, attached his own bill to it and filed for a cloture, a 60-vote procedural move to avoid a filibuster that takes a day to ripen. Reid had assumed he would negotiate a compromise with McConnell that could then be swapped in for Reid’s plan before the cloture clock expires at 1 a.m. on Sunday. But now McConnell is calling to move the cloture vote up on Reid’s bill. Given that 43 Republicans have signed a letter in opposition to the bill, McConnell knows such a vote would kill it; he has been unwilling to allow a simple majority vote on the bill.

This development is disturbing because Reid’s bill — or whatever replacement compromise he could reach with McConnell — is the last possible vehicle that has time to get through the Senate before the Tuesday deadline. The House voted down a version of Reid’s plan on Saturday afternoon  in a symbolic gesture by Republicans to show that the Reid bill was also a nonstarter in the lower chamber. So, is McConnell laying the ground work for deadlock and, by extension, default?

Democrats think so. At the last White House meeting a week ago, McConnell told Obama to stop inviting congressional leaders to the White House. “This deal,” McConnell said, according to sources in the room, “will be negotiated by congressional leaders and their staffs. The White House meetings are a time-consuming distraction.” So why, now, is he calling for the President to get involved? Dems believe it’s because McConnell knows the debt ceiling will be breached and he wants the President close to negotiations so that he’ll bear blame for the ensuing fallout. “My friend the Minority Leader says that he wants a bill he knows the President will sign in to law, well the President has said repeatedly he supports my bill,” Reid said on the floor of the Senate. “So, why won’t he allow a simple majority vote on my bill?”

Republicans say Democrats’ theory is nonsense. They argue that both Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were on board with Boehner’s bill last Sunday before they were called to the White House. At that meeting, Obama reiterated he wouldn’t accept a two-step process to raise the debt ceiling. Boehner’s bill called for one immediate vote and another in six month’s time. Democrats walked away from the talks. “The lesson from last weekend is that anything the two parties agree to here doesn’t mean a thing if the President decides he doesn’t like it; that Democrats will abandon their own agreements if the President doesn’t support them,” McConnell said on the floor of the Senate on Saturday afternoon. “We don’t have time for that to happen again.”

Meanwhile, for lack of a leader to negotiate with, Democrats have begun to whip the Republican rank-and-file, asking them what would be needed to get their votes in a possible compromise. The New York Times reported on Friday that McConnell would like nothing more than to let Reid pass whatever he likes on purely Democratic votes – a simple majority – but his conservative Tea Party members would never allow that. And it would make Boehner’s job of delivering a majority in the House – even with 160+ Democratic votes – even harder.  Rumors abound that Obama may yet meet with Senate leaders from both parties. He’s asked for a face-to-face update from Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and while White House spokesman Jay Carney said not to rule anything out, there’s no word of bipartisan talks at the White House just yet. In Washington, just talking is dangerous stuff these days.

Updated, 3:44 p.m.