As state of play in debt talks changes by the moment, even lobbyists struggle to keep up

In one television commercial that began airing last week, a woman talks up the benefits of “Spenditol,” Washington’s miracle drug to fix all problems. Side effects include “a sudden loss of freedoms” and “higher prices for everything.”

In another spot, a group of three stern senior citizens scoldingly asks viewers to call members of Congress to question why they would possibly propose cutting more than $100 billion from Medicare and Medicaid.

“What were you thinking?” one of the seniors shouts at the camera at the end.

Advocacy groups that have spent months anticipating exactly the stalemate Washington has now reached are working to apply pressure to nudge political leaders engaged in talks on raising the nation’s debt ceiling. But with the state of play changing by the moment, advocates are able to offer only the broadest of thoughts about how to proceed.

For once, that most self-certain of Washington institutions — lobbying — has been left in the same state as the financial markets, the economy and the rest of the country: confused.

“It’s helpful to be as general as possible, because things are changing hourly,” said Penny Nance, chief executive officer of the Concerned Women for America, which is spending $1.15 million on the Spenditol ad. “I go to bed, and I wake up, and everything’s changed.”

Nance said the message of the Spenditol commercial, which is airing on Fox News, CNN and more broadly in four states, is that America must reduce its debt and not push its problems into the future.

But would a new proposal by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) — to raise the debt ceiling for a few months in exchange for a small package of cuts — fit the bill?

Under the proposal, a new congressional committee would be charged with coming up with $1.8 trillion more in debt reduction over the next 10 years before the debt ceiling could be raised further.

As of Monday, Nance was uncertain.

“It sounds interesting, but, as they say, the devil’s in the details,” she said.

Some other organizations are as assured as ever.

The liberal group MoveOn.org issued a statement Monday dismissing a competing plan from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) that would raise the debt ceiling through the 2012 election and cut the debt by $2.7 trillion, entirely through spending cuts.

“We strongly urge him and all Democrats to insist on a balanced approach that ends outrageous tax breaks and loopholes for big corporations and the rich. Unfortunately, this plan doesn’t do that,” the group wrote.

Likewise, a coalition that had urged lawmakers to sign a pledge that they would refuse to raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval of a balanced-budget amendment to the constitution came out against Boehner’s proposal, saying it would require only a vote on the amendment in coming months, not its passage.

But for many organizations, it’s been hard to simply keep up with the whipsawing schemes emerging from talks between the president and top congressional leaders.

“We’re continuing to meet with as many members [of Congress] as we can,” said David Certner, legislative policy director for AARP, which is trying to persuade Congress not to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits. “A lot of members are saying the same thing we are: ‘I’m not in the room either.’ I know a lot of folks on the Hill are not even sure what the latest is.”

The commercial featuring the three seniors is the work of the Coalition to Protect America’s Health Care, which represents health-care groups and is led by the American Hospital Association.

The group had been working to analyze various congressional initiatives to figure out the effects of proposed spending cuts on hospitals. Now, it is left simply trying to put a human face on local medical care and urge members of Congress not to craft a last-minute deal that would lean on health care to shrink the deficit.

“You really don’t know what’s in the mix,” said Rick Pollack, executive director of the AHA. “The proposals are just outlines — and these outlines don’t go very deep.”

The powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce has the ear of business-friendly Republicans, whom the group helped take control of the House in 2010.

The chamber has not endorsed a particular path forward or backed any party in the standoff. Instead, it has urged that Congress find a way to raise the debt limit before an Aug. 2 deadline, when the nation will default on its spending obligations. The push has become more urgent as days have slipped by.

For rank-and-file members of Congress, who have been receiving only sketchy updates from their leaders, the pressure from citizens and advocates alike feels insistent — but vague.

While talks for a bipartisan deal broke down, restarted and broke down again over the weekend, freshman Rep. Bill Huizenga (R) went home to his regular rotation of festivals and parades in his Michigan district.

“The majority of the input I got from people was — ‘stay the course, stay strong on this,’ ” he said. “One guy said, ‘Hey, I’m retired, and I’m depending on you guys coming up with a solution.’ ”

But what is a solution?

“I believe, for me, here, it means continue to press fiscal sanity and cuts,” Huizenga said. “But that may be different for everybody.”

Staff writer Tim Farnam contributed to this report.

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