Congress Postures, Pretends at Governing as Markets Sink

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Brendan Hoffman / Bloomberg via Getty Images

On most days, the U.S. Senate chamber is a glorified soundstage. Members use its marbled walls and royal blue carpet as a backdrop to read for the cameras and the congressional record. Full and genuine debate is a rarity. But for a few minutes on Tuesday, it seemed one might actually break out.

With Congress racked by twin fiscal crises, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid summoned the entire Senate to the first live quorum call in months, an occasion normally reserved for major votes. The moment might have paved the way toward a deal. Instead, Reid had gathered the chamber to deliver his daily harangue in person. “You folks have to take yes for an answer,” he needled Republicans. As Reid chided House Speaker John Boehner, the GOP senators thumbed their smartphones, peered at slips of paper and gazed at the floor, waiting for their turn to recite their own script.

There were sound bites aplenty, but little actual progress toward a pact to end the eight-day government shutdown or stave off the specter of default. With just over a week until the deadline to lift the debt ceiling, both parties are digging deeper into their trenches.

At this point, the budget brinksmanship, which began when Republicans demanded concessions on Obamacare to keep the government open, has evolved from disputes over policy to tests of patience and nerve. Senate Democrats and House Republicans remain locked in an intractable stalemate, with no formal negotiations and few fresh ideas. The Democrats trotted out a billboard that read “Open the Government.” House Republicans held a press conference in front of wallpaper emblazoned with a #LetsTalk hashtag.

“It’s irresponsible for us to raise the debt ceiling without a family conversation about the finances of this nation,” said Louisiana GOP member John Fleming. But the conversation House Republicans wanted to start was about dusting off a disastrous idea from 2011. They filed a bill to establish a bipartisan, bicameral committee of 20 members tasked with identifying ways to raise the debt ceiling, reduce the deficit and cut spending. Don’t call it a supercommittee, GOP aides insisted, but it certainly looks like one, except without any deadlines or forcing mechanisms that would give the panel any clout. “The supercommittee was a dismal failure,” said Democrat Jim Moran of Virginia. “What’s the point of doing something all over again that we’ve already shown doesn’t work?

Senate Democrats laughed off the proposal. “Another gimmick that says, while we shut the government down, and while we’re threatening default, come to the table? It doesn’t work like their previous gizmos didn’t work,” said New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

Reid introduced a bill that would extend U.S. borrowing authority through the November 2014 midterm elections. While the Nevada Democrat said he had the 60 votes required to surmount Republican opposition, Schumer acknowledged the GOP could use procedural maneuvers to delay a vote on final passage until right before the Oct. 17 deadline at which the Treasury Department says its accounting gimmicks to delay default will be exhausted. Even if it squeaked through, Boehner has said such a measure would be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House.

While Congress squabbled, Obama was busy restating the same positions he’s held since the start of this fiasco. He called Boehner in the morning to declare he wouldn’t negotiate, then summoned the media in the afternoon to explain why. For an hour the President held forth in the briefing room, but there was no news of note. Obama has calculated that by standing his ground, he can permanently neutralize the Republican tactic of holding the debt ceiling hostage.

That would argue for Congressional leaders to step in and hash out an eleventh-hour deal, as they’ve done plenty of times in the past. But as Boehner said Monday, if there’s still a smoky back room in the Capitol, “there’s no one in it.” If anything, the House GOP’s animosity toward Reid seems to have superseded their dislike for the President. On multiple occasions this week, Reid has all but called Boehner a liar, claiming he reneged on a private agreement to pass a clean government funding bill.

As if it could get uglier, the two parties are even at loggerheads on what constitutes negotiation or the consequences of failing to meet the debt deadline. Democrats say that agreeing to sequester-level spending represents a significant compromise. But as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argued, those funding levels are settled law, just like Obamacare. And while a battery of nonpartisan economists say breaching the debt ceiling would be disastrous, a raft of Republicans dismissed such claims as fear mongering.

At this point, diving financial markets and intensifying pressure from Wall Street may be the best hope for a fresh round of genuine negotiations. Even the best outcome would leave another crisis looming. “I suspect that we’ll have to pass some kind of short-term spending bill and debt limit increase,” said Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican. “A month, give or take a week. I believe that’s where we’ll be heading if there is no progress made.”

If there was agreement on anything, it was that it’s time to start talking. “I’m prepared to talk about anything. They can design whatever format they want,” Obama said. “The American people have given us divided government,” McConnell said. “That means we have to talk to each other and get to an outcome.”

But they didn’t get very far. When Reid asked for unanimous consent to begin floor speeches, Texas Senator John Cornyn, the Republican whip, jumped in. Why, he asked, had Reid requested consecutive speaking slots for Democrats, instead of alternating between the two parties?

Reid shrugged. Three Democratic and two Republican speeches was not so uneven, he protested in his soft voice. So Cornyn objected to the motion. The speeches rolled on, but no one was listening.

With reporting by Alex Rogers