“Listen, we’re in the foxhole,” Boehner said. “This is not easy. Because what we’re trying to do here is solve a problem that has eluded Washington for decades. I’m glad Eric’s there, and those who have other opinions, they can keep them to themselves.”
Still, clear differences were apparent between the two GOP leaders. While Cantor dismissed the strategy emerging in the Senate as unworkable, Boehner on Thursday opened the door wide to that approach, saying, “I think it’s worth keeping on the table.”
“What may look like something less than optimal today, if we’re unable to get to an agreement, might look pretty good a couple of weeks from now,” Boehner told reporters. When asked whether the strategy could win a 218-vote majority in the House, the speaker said: “I have no idea.”
Details of the Senate approach were sketchy. Reid said he is working with the White House and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on “a number of different alternatives” for pushing a debt-limit increase quickly through the Senate and the more hostile House.
“We’re not there yet . . . So I’m not in a position right now to tell you where we are going to go,” Reid told reporters at the Capitol.
Reid confirmed, however, that discussions are focused on what McConnell has called “Plan B”: an elaborate legal framework to raise the debt limit by $2.5 trillion that would place the entire political burden for the unpopular move on Obama.
Unveiled earlier this week, McConnell’s plan included no mechanism to force the sharp spending cuts that Republicans have demanded in exchange for voting to lift the debt limit. But in a sign of the unusual political times, Democrats said they were reluctant to go along with that proposal and are pressing to add roughly $1.5 trillion in cuts to government agencies to the measure.
Talks were also underway over a plan to appoint 12 lawmakers from both parties to draft a long-term framework to stabilize the national debt. The new debt committee would be given a deadline, and its recommendations would be fast-tracked to a vote in the House and Senate without amendment, similar to the process used to close military bases.
Late Thursday, McConnell told a radio interviewer that the new debt-reduction panel would “probably be part of the bill” and that it would likely be asked to issue its report by the end of the year.
Given the high stakes, Reid and McConnell were moving quietly. Too much information, Reid said, could “kill” the deal. “It’s best to try to move this down the field very slowly and make sure every step of the way is covered,” he said.
Separately, House leaders are pursuing an amendment to the Constitution that would require Congress to balance the budget. With a vote expected next week, House GOP aides said the vote could go a long way toward soothing conservative angst over the debt limit, even if it doesn’t pass. The Senate is scheduled to vote on a similar measure next week.
House GOP leaders, meanwhile, have summoned rank-and-file lawmakers to an unusual Friday morning meeting to discuss the path forward, a few hours before Obama has scheduled a White House news conference.
Before bringing talks to a close Thursday, Obama gave Republicans three options: The far-reaching $4 trillion deal that includes taxes and cuts to entitlement programs; a $2 trillion package that would require each side to give only a little; and a much smaller package that would include no tax increases and no cuts to entitlement programs — and do much less to solve the nation’s financial problems.