Half an hour after the House had adjourned Friday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) had assembled reporters in the Senate TV Studio to give an update on the progress of negotiations on raising the country’s debt ceiling, four days out from the deadline for default.
The outlook was not particularly promising.
The House had earlier Friday evening approved a debt-ceiling framework put forward by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Two-and-a-half hours after the House narrowly passed the measure without the support of a single Democrat, the Senate voted to set the bill aside.
Opposition in the Senate to the Boehner plan was bipartisan – but for different reasons on each side of the aisle.
Democrats unanimously opposed the measure mainly because they viewed its provision for a short-term debt-limit increase as insufficient and its mandate that Congress pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution as overreaching.
The six Senate Republicans who joined Democrats in opposing the Boehner plan did so because they viewed the measure as insufficiently conservative – even though House Republican leaders had hurriedly re-worked the bill Thursday night in order to tamp down an open rebellion by members on the right.
With the Boehner plan defeated by the Senate, the House was poised Saturday afternoon to fast-track a competing debt-ceiling plan proposed by Reid.
That plan, too, was certain to be rejected by the House.
The Senate was also on its way toward considering the Reid bill, although the upper chamber’s version was different from the one that the House was sure to send to defeat on Saturday — Senate Democrats had abruptly shifted course Friday night and reworked the measure on their own in an effort to secure Republican support.
That move came amid a worrisome development in Friday’s debt-limit drama: the ongoing talks between Reid and McConnell appeared to have broken down and it was unclear whether either leader was talking with the other.
“Well, we have a curious situation here where the majority doesn’t seem to want to vote on its own proposal,” was McConnell’s answer when asked as he exited the Senate chamber late Friday how the talks with Reid were progressing.
Reid, asked whether there were any talks of significance taking place on either the principal or staff level, responded: “At this stage, nothing of significance.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a freshman and former White House budget director who has been working closely with McConnell throughout the debt talks, maintained that the leaders were still at the table but that it wasn’t clear when a potential deal might be reached.
“They’re talking; they’re talking,” Portman said outside the Senate chamber Friday night. “I don’t know how long it’ll take, but they’re talking.”
At issue were the timing and threshold for passage of Reid’s bill in the Senate.
The deadlock with McConnell left Reid with the choice of either progressing to his bill Friday only to see it swiftly fall short of 60 votes, or moving the bill forward with a majority-vote threshold but being forced to delay the vote for more than a day.
Reid chose the latter – meaning that one o’clock in the morning on Sunday would be the earliest the Senate would be able to vote on his revised bill.
That would be less than 72 hours away from the default deadline.
It was against this backdrop that the trio of Senate Democratic leaders held their Capitol news conference Friday evening to appeal to Republicans to support their reworked plan — even as they accused McConnell of refusing to negotiate with them.
Reid said he’d been planning to have a meeting with several Senate Republicans in his office Friday afternoon, but “that fell through.” Schumer said that he’d spoken with 10 Republican senators on Friday alone.
“They want to come to an agreement,” he said. “But until Senator McConnell gives them the green light, nothing is going to happen. And they get the vibes, and perhaps the direct word, I don’t know, from the Republican leader: ‘Don’t do anything.’ ”
Durbin took the podium and argued that “what these senators on the Republican side are waiting for is a permission slip from Senator McConnell.”
“He told them to hold back until Boehner had his chance,” Durbin said. ”Hold back until the Boehner bill came to the floor. That’s all history now. The American people want us to move forward.”
The move to target Republican senators marked a turning point in the debt-ceiling saga for Democratic leaders, whose lobbying efforts had thus far focused mainly on rounding up members of their own party in unanimous opposition to the Boehner plan.
After weeks of casting Boehner as a responsible leader whose ability to compromise had been hijacked by “tea party extremists” in the House, Senate Democratic leaders now found themselves arguing that it was the rank and file among Senate Republicans who were the ones open to compromise and that it was their leader, McConnell, who was denying them the “permission” to support a bipartisan plan.
That suggested that an agreement between the two leaders might still be a long way off.
If the leaders weren’t able to forge a deal by Tuesday’s deadline, then, what were the options?
The uncertain prospects for a deal led some Congress-watchers at the Capitol on Friday to muse about an idea that the White House has dismissed but that has been increasingly floated by some congressional Democrats: the 14th Amendment option.
Reid kept the door open when asked whether he thought Obama should pursue that option and raise the debt ceiling on his own if Congress fails to pass a compromise.
“That’s his decision, not mine,” he said.