After a week of debt-ceiling drama, nothing is resolved

With just weeks remaining before the debt-ceiling deadline, this week in Washington played out like five days of “General Hospital.” There were plenty of theatrics — raised voices, name-calling, even a dramatic exit by President Obama.

But by Friday, nothing important had been resolved.

The week began with the demise of the “grand bargain,” an effort by President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to pair large spending cuts with $800 billion in new tax revenues.

When a frantic week ended, Washington still had no Plan A: a proposal that might give both Republicans and Democrats the things they want most.

Instead, there was only a jury-rigged and unpopular Plan B. Its chief virtue was that it would save Republicans and Democrats from what they feared most, a national default.

“We are obviously running out of time,” Obama said at a news conference Friday, at the end of it all. “And so what I’ve said to the members of Congress is that you need, over the next 24 to 36 hours, to give me some sense of what your plan is.”

The final deadline for this debate is still Aug. 2. That, according to administration officials, is when the U.S. will hit its statutory limit on borrowing and will be unable to pay all its existing bills. Obama has said he wants the outlines of a deal in place by July 22, to allow time for Congress to work up an agreement into law and pass it.

Boehner set the week in motion last Saturday when, under pressure from his own lieutenants, he withdrew from discussions of a massive $4 trillion package of spending cuts and revenue increases.

On Monday, one of those lieutenants — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — said the GOP-led House would never go for revenue increases. Instead, Cantor suggested a solution that would involve only spending cuts, perhaps those identified in an earlier round of talks led by Vice President Joe Biden.

Those cuts would be a major compromise for Democrats. Cantor was asked: What was his side offering in return?

“The fact that we have been discussing voting for a debt ceiling increase,” Cantor said.

The divide between Obama and Cantor led to confrontations in two separate meetings this week. The president tried to resurrect the grand bargain, and Cantor held his ground.

“Where’s your paper?” Cantor asked Obama in a meeting Tuesday, meaning the details of the president’s plan.

Obama snapped: “Frankly, your speaker has it. Am I dealing with him, or am I dealing with you?”

On Wednesday, the two men clashed again, and Obama ended the meeting with a rebuke. Cantor recalled him saying, “Eric, don’t call my bluff. You know I’m going to take this to the American people.” Obama then walked out abruptly, Cantor said. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) later called Cantor “childish.”

With the talks making little headway, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed a convoluted backup plan. It requires creating a legal back door that would allow President Obama to raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval.

That move might be paired with a proposal for a bipartisan commission that would work to identify spending cuts in the coming months. But it still was highly unpopular among House Republicans.

So, by Friday, Washington was still a city of divisions.

“No one wants the United States to default on our obligations,” Boehner said at a news conference Friday morning. But at this point, it seems like no one in Washington knows exactly how to prevent that.

“Listen,” Boehner, surrounded by other Republican leaders, said, “we’re in the fourth quarter here.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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