But one or both chambers is due to be on break for three of those weeks. And when Congress last reached a big debt-reduction deal, it took more than a month just to draft the legislation. That leaves little room for chance — or last-minute negotiating to marshal votes for what is likely to be a politically difficult package of unprecedented cuts to long-
sacrosanct federal programs.
“I keep talking to other colleagues who have confidence that someone else is working things out,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a freshman member of the Budget Committee. “But I keep looking around thinking, ‘If we’re not doing it, then who is?’ ”
Even the broad goal of the talks is subject to dispute. Some lawmakers consider it too timid, arguing that the nation needs to find more than $4 trillion in savings by 2021 to avoid a debt crisis. Others view $2 trillion as impossibly ambitious. And hardly anybody wants to support the most critical part of the package: more borrowing authority for a nation already mired in red ink.
“There’s a large degree of apprehension,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “This is a seminal moment where we can do something great for the country. But there’s apprehension about it, because of the pace at which it’s going and the level of detail.”
With an Aug. 2 deadline nearing, along with the threat of turmoil in global financial markets if Congress doesn’t act, Vice President Biden is stepping up talks this week with six lawmakers from both parties in hopes of presenting a plan to President Obama and congressional leaders by July 4. So far, negotiators have identified many areas of consensus: Farmers are certain to lose some federal subsidies, for example. And federal workers will have to contribute more to finance their retirement.
But what Biden called “the philosophically big-ticket items” remain: the Republican demand for significant savings from Medicare, the biggest driver of future deficits, and the Democratic demand for fresh revenue.
“There are differences that are going to have to be bridged,” the vice president said last week, after emerging from a bargaining session at the Capitol. “We’re not going to cut any deal that can’t be sold.”
Still, leaders in both parties acknowledge that the sales job will not be easy, particularly in the House. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has demonstrated limited control over his independent-minded caucus, which is dominated by conservatives who are skeptical about the need to raise the legal limit on government borrowing.
For many, the memory is still fresh of that queasy day in September 2008 when Boehner struggled to get a third of his conference to support the Troubled Assets Relief Program bank bailout. The first vote failed, sending stock markets tumbling nearly 800 points.