Prospects for a Debt Deal Darken as Republicans Point the Finger at Obama

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Bill Clark / Roll Call

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell attempted to lay Washington’s debt-ceiling debacle squarely at President Obama’s feet in a press conference on Saturday, making public their effort to drag Obama back into the center of frenzied negotiations to cut spending and increase borrowing authority ahead of a Tuesday deadline. “He’s the leader of the Democratic party and the President of the United States,” McConnell said. “He needs to tell us what he’ll sign.”

“It’s time for them to tell us what they’re for,” echoed Boehner, repeating the Republican canard that suggests Obama, who’s endorsed Majority Leader Reid’s latest bill and put forward a series of proposals himself behind closed doors, has no plan. “It’s time to tell us how they’re going to get us out of the cul-de-sac they’ve driven our country into.”

The spin session, which came just hours after word leaked that McConnell was turning away overtures from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and demanding to negotiate directly with the President, marked an escalation in an already fraught standoff that has the U.S. Treasury preparing drastic measures should the debt ceiling not be raised by Tuesday.

McConnell announced that he had contacted the White House on Saturday and had held initial phone conversations with Vice President Joe Biden, as well as Obama himself. But the Republicans’ message seemed more like maneuvering than outreach. “We are now fully engaged… with the one person in America out of 300 million who can sign a bill into law,” McConnell said. Boehner made sure to repeat his line about the President driving the country into a cul-de-sac before concluding the brief session with reporters.

“The Republican Leader says he’s engaged,” Reid fired back in a speech later Saturday evening. “Members of his caucus, at least as far as I’m concerned, are more engaged than he is.” In the absence of talks with McConnell, Reid has resorted to whipping rank-and-file members of the Republican caucus, but his call for renewed negotiations was pointed. “While the Republican Leader is holding meaningless press conferences, his members are reaching out to me and other members,” Reid said.

The bitter back-and-forth might have been one final effort by congressional leaders to bruise each other before capitulating to demands, but it could also mean that key players are now preparing for the possibility that no deal can be reached, and thus attempting to shift blame before serious political fallout occurs. If Republican leaders succeed in getting Obama involved in a last-minute compromise, it will be all the harder for them to convince their members to support it.

Time is short. Boehner’s plan squeaked through the House on Friday night after a conservative insurrection forced significant changes, but was swiftly tabled by the Democratic Senate. Reid’s solution was symbolically voted down in the House on Saturday afternoon, and faces an insurmountable filibuster should he pursue it in his own chamber. He’s scheduled a vote for 1 p.m. on Sunday nonetheless, but there may not be enough time for any measure to clear the usual procedural hurdles in the Senate by Tuesday.

The Republican leaders did offer one sunny note. “I’m confident and optimistic we’re going to get an agreement in the very near future,” McConnell said. But after Saturday’s recriminations and delays, that future seems less certain than ever.

Updated, 10:19 p.m.