A timeline for passing debt-ceiling increase

July 22, 2011

President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) are close enough to a debt-deficit deal that Boehner told Republican lawmakers Friday that he hoped the deal would come together soon enough for the House to consider by Wednesday of next week, according to GOP staff who were in the room.

If all goes according to plan, that time frame would allow Congress to approve an increase in the debt ceiling and an accompanying set of historic spending cuts by July 30 — leaving three full days before the advertised deadline of Aug. 2, when the government could potentially fall into technical default and not be able to pay its bills.

Of course, that’s a very big if, and even the notion of a plan many be exaggerated, given the complexity and uncertainty that has enveloped the debt-ceiling debate.

The legislative time frame came into sharp focus Friday morning when Boehner told his House Republican colleagues that, if his large deal with Obama comes together, he wants the House to approve the legislation by Wednesday.

After the Friday meeting with House Republicans, Boehner denied that he and Obama were on the verge of a deal, telling reporters the two sides are “not close to an agreement.” But Boehner’s willingness to lay out even a tentative timeline suggests marked progress, and the announcement also signaled the beginning of an effort by the GOP leadership to determine whether there’s enough support for the potential $3 trillion deficit-reduction deal in the House.

That remains very much in question, because of the continued anxiety on the right about the tax package that is expected to be part of the deal and the angst on the left about the potential cuts to popular entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. For now, most of official Washington has decided to sit back and await word whether this will be a go or no-go decision on what Boehner has called the “big deal.”

“The Senate will wait anxiously,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said on the chamber floor Friday.

According to staff, the step-by-step process of how the legislation could win final approval by the deadline might look something like this:

* Sunday/Monday: If the president and speaker believe they have an acceptable deal, it would likely be announced late Sunday or Monday. The legislation would need to be unveiled by late Monday in order to meet the Boehner-imposed rule that a bill be publicly available for three days before a vote on it is held. The legislation does not require a full 72 hours but would need to be available by Monday so that the House could act on the third day of its availability, which would be Wednesday. If the unveiling of the legislation slips by a day, this timeline would shift to accommodate the slippage.

* Tuesday: The House would debate the legislation.

* Wednesday: The House would vote on the legislation and, if it wins a majority, send it to the Senate. There are just 433 members of the House now — and two vacancies — so the magic number for a majority is 217.

* Wednesday night: If the Senate receives the House bill by Wednesday evening, Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would likely move quickly to ensure speedy consideration of the legislation. Anticipating a filibuster effort from opponents on the right and possibly the left, the Senate leaders would file a so-called cloture motion to cut off debate on the matter.

* Thursday: Ongoing Senate debate on the cloture motion to move to a final vote.

* Friday: The cloture motion would “ripen” one hour after the Senate convenes on Friday (assuming Reid has filed it by Wednesday night). That would normally be a Friday morning vote and, if the bill received 60 or more votes, the Senate would move into the final stages of the debate. Even after a cloture motion is approved, rules guarantee 30 hours of debate before the Senate can hold a final vote, pushing it into Saturday.

* Saturday afternoon: The Senate would have a final vote on the legislation and, assuming that it has not amended the bill in any fashion in the previous three days, a simple majority would be needed to pass the bill and send it to the president for his signature. Any alteration to the legislation would then send it back to the House, where Boehner would have three more days to secure passage and avert a default.

Without publicly endorsing their work, Reid summed up his feelings toward the efforts of Obama and Boehner with a simple comment Friday: “I wish them well.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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